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Remembering Another NASA Mission Ending

by George Murphy on June 7, 2011

With this last Space Shuttle launch coming up fast, I thought it appropriate to look back at another earlier mission ending that carried many of the same question about the future of manned space travel that haunt this last flight of Atlantis. Six years before the very first Shuttle flight, and that amazing sense of potential that had come with it, there was the solemn goodbye that many of us made to the Apollo program back in 1975.

It had started out as the Apollo “Moon” program. I was just a boy when Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made those first impressions in the grey lunar soil with the soles of their pristine white NASA space suits. Mind you, I was glued to every telecast, and even had a big chart on my bedroom wall, with pictures I’d drawn of the earth and moon, to track the progress of those early Apollo crafts on their lunar journeys. Yes, I was a bit of a geek about space and astronomy…probably still am. There are worse things.

Launch Complex 39B sits empty, eerily quiet in the fading afternoon light, where only hours earlier the last of the Apollo rockets had roared from its pedestal to meet up with its Russian counterpart for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. This mission marked the end of the spirited Apollo program that had taken us to the surface of the Moon and back, six times. Photo by George Murphy © 1975.

By the time I was old enough to pursue opportunities to cover the launches at the Kennedy Space Center, the mission had shifted. The Apollo lift vehicles had done their job of getting us to the Moon. Now they were retooled for a more local objective: establishing and supporting Skylab, America’s first manned space station. Some 270 miles above the earth, three separate groups of astronauts made Skylab their home while pushing the bounds of solar astronomy and learning how to work and live in zero gravity for extended periods of time…a total of 171 days and 13 hours. It was a start.

NASA buses seem to converge on the Apollo-Soyuz rocket as press photographers capture the ship on the launch pad during the night-time rollaway of the Mobile Service Structure, one week before launch.   Photo by George Murphy © 1975

Then as the Skylab program ended, one last Apollo rocket was tagged to accomplish a very symbolic mission; that of joining the Russian Soyuz 19 spacecraft in orbit, where the two ships docked in a very public display of détente. There the crews exchanged warm handshakes, visited each other’s ships and joined together in a series of scientific experiments, bringing the Russian and American space programs together for the very first time; and setting the tone for international collaboration in space that would see it’s fruition in the current International Space Station.

On a personal level, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (as the mission was officially called) offered me the closest opportunity yet to witness first-hand and to document the massive machinery of space travel. One moment stands out vividly: On this particular day NASA had arranged to allow small groups of news media to photograph the Apollo-Soyuz rocket as it made its way from the Vehicle Assembly Building on its four-mile journey to the launch complex; which it did riding atop the massive Mobile Launcher/Crawler assembly. Now you have to understand that we’re talking about a structure that weighs over ten-million pounds and is the equivalent of a moving forty-six-story building!

The Saturn 1B rocket of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission makes it’s way along the four mile Crawler Way from the Vehicle Assembly Building (in the distance) to the launch pad at Launch Complex 39B. This view is a panoramic composite of three separate photographs made from nearly 400 feet above the surrounding landscape. Photo by George Murphy © 1975

There was a moment when I boarded the moving Crawler, had ridden the elevator to the upper heights of the bright red Umbilical Tower and stepped out eye-level with the Apollo capsule that was nestled under a protective shroud atop its Saturn 1B rocket, some three-hundred-and-sixty-five feet above the ground–the whole structure swaying gently as we made our way at a slow mile-and-a-half an hour down the crushed gravel Crawler-Way…Holy Crap!!! Everyone did their best to remain professional as the reality of our surroundings set in.

It was a truly rare view above the gators and marshlands of the Kennedy Space Center, and of course, there was still that capsule where astronauts Tom Stafford, Vance Brand and “Deke” Slayton would soon be sitting, seemingly not much more than arms length away. It was such a tiny sanctuary against the bulk of the rocket below. I tried to imaging the even larger mass of the Saturn V rockets that had launched the Moon missions. Same small capsule…a lot more explosives.

I pulled my head back into the job at hand. The whole scene was too wide for me to to do justice to with the lenses I had on hand. Everything was too big in this land of giants. I needed another vantage point.

I noticed that there was a stairway leading up one more level, so I took a few of the steps up and turned to check my higher vantage. Unfortunately, now, the view of the rocket was blocked by the gantry structure itself. I turned back once more to survey the steps which led up and away: decided, “what the heck,” and darted up that last remaining level unnoticed, leaving my fellow members of the press behind.

Once up, I could go no higher. I was at the top. On the rocket side of this level I noticed a small gangway that jutted out toward the ship, promising a better view. As I stepped onto it, a single swaying link chain was all that blocked me from over four-hundred feet of open air. My escort would very likely not be happy if he found me right now; but this was the shot I had been looking for. My heart raced as I leaned out over the last of the Apollo rockets, carefully composing with my camera. This was what it was all about…moments like this!

-GM

A plaque was erected shortly after the last Apollo launch at the Kennedy Space Center press site that marks the historical significance of the media press coverage that has occurred at this place. Photo by George Murphy © 1975

 

TECHNICAL NOTES:
The non-launch color shots were made with Kodachrome 25 color slide film–some mighty slow film, but you couldn’t beat it, at the time, for color and sharpness in a 35mm format. I got very used to using a tripod and learning how to hold a camera very steady when I went hand-held. The launch shot is on a higher speed Ektachrome E-6 type color slide film, captured from 3 miles away using a Nikon 1200mm ƒ 11 super-telephoto lens. I’m pretty sure I was at ISO 400 (ASA back in those days) just to have a shot at a decent shutter speed.

The black-and-white tile of the Apollo-Soyuz from the Umbilical Tower was made on Ilford Pan-F film with an ASA of 100 and tank processed by hand. The vertical panorama was stitched together from three 28mm views using Adobe Photoshop.

Both transparencies and negatives were scanned into digital form using a Nikon Super CoolScan 4000 scanner. While I’d done earlier scans on some of these images, I’ve come to understand more now about what I’m doing during the scanning process, so have been rescanning some of these using LaserSoft’s SilverFast scanning software in lieu  of Nikon’s own software. It has some specific features designed to help get better scans off of the dense Kodachrome emulsions, and I have been very pleased with the results.

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One response to “Remembering Another NASA Mission Ending”

  1. Chris Trimble says:

    Hey George, I just wanted to let you know that these shots are _awesome_. If you have more, post ’em up. I had no idea you were doing this kind of journalism in the 70s. Very cool.

    Oh and Kodachrome 25 rocks. I just had a bunch of slides scanned that I shot on K25 and they look amazing to this day. The color is the best ever. Love that film.

    – Chris

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