The last men to the moon

On February 20, 1962, my mother shook me out of bed at 6AM -- “wake up darling, there is something very historic I want you to see” she said. Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I sauntered into the living room and flopped in front of the television where news anchor Walter Cronkite was conversing with an engineer who clutched a plastic replica of a Mercury spacecraft.

As the menacing Atlas booster spewed liquid oxygen from it's release valves, I became troubled for the John Glenn's safety who was basically situated atop a colossal fuel tank. Though only age 6, the danger was very apparent and when the countdown reached T-minus ten seconds, my excitement reached fever pitch. When the engines ignited, my first reaction was “poor John” as I assumed the spacecraft had blown up in a fireball until I soon realized the rocket was safely clearing the launch pad. That magic moment transformed me into a lifelong space junkie.

From NASA/photographer unknown - Great Images in NASA Description, public domain,

Many young people today seem oblivious to the space program. They see images of the moon and far off planets simplifying their existence. But back in the early1960's, a space probe clearing a launch pad successfully was a miracle let alone surviving a voyage to Venus or Mercury. The electronics then were vastly inferior to present day science where NASA envisions a future space probe the size of a postage stamp being launched to nearby stars with a sail and laser beam.

Subsequent moon landings in addition to the near fatal tragedy of Apollo 13 were monitored on my family's black and white television screen, so when dad arrived home one day with a color RCA set I was ecstatic because I could then watch the Apollo15 mission in color. But joy turned to sadness when NBC news reported that the general public was losing interest in the space program, moreover the forthcoming Apollo 17 Moon launch would be the last. This was heartbreaking and I shared my sadness with mom and dad.

This is the Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as seen from my family´s television set in 1969. Little did I know then,I would get a chance to watch the last moon flight in person.

Then in December of 1972 my parents handed me an early Christmas card which held included an airline ticket bound for Orlando Florida. At the time of the gift, my father was on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Science and Industry and the organization was sponsoring an excursion for family members to attend the launching of Apollo 17 at the Kennedy Space Center. This was more than I could ever have imagined and the best part, it was going to be a rare night launch. I was ecstatic.

While passengers snoozed during the Eastern Airlines red-eye flight to Orlando, I had to smile reflecting on my first plane-trip aboard a Lockheed Constellation in 1960 at age four. My mother and I were on our way to Knoxville, Tennessee to visit my grandparents and during the lunch I managed to dump a Styrofoam cup full of hot chocolate on the flight attendant's uniform. Back in those days, flying was a lavish affair and travelers dressed for the occasion. Even after flying to over one hundred countries, I am still amazed by the pinpoints of city lights floating in a sea of desert darkness or the orange flash of lightening strikes in distant thunderclouds. Every time the sunrise reflects off the plane's wing tips or the rain trickles down the passenger window … I feel alive.

This was my special badge which allowed me to gain access to the two-mile viewing stands near the news media. The Apollo 17 launch trip was sponsored by the California Museum Of Science and Industry where my gather was a board member.

Orlando, Florida greeted me with a burst of humidity as the aircraft's door swiveled opened and the strange surroundings contrasted sharply from Southern California. After the museum members met at the airport terminal, we all headed for a bus bound for Daytona.

After fumbling fumbling with my hotel room key, I unloaded my bags on the floor, turned on the air conditioner and flopped on the bed. As I lay there with my hands clasped behind my head, everything seemed so natural despite me never having traveled alone. I savored a stronger sense of independence while realizing how important that perception would be throughout the rest of my life. I parted the drapes and studied Atlantic Ocean for the first time, then I grabbed my camera bag and went exploring.

Disney World was part of the trip's program and though most teens my age were waiting in long Matterhorn lines, I was photographing crowds of tourist. In a recent edit of my film archives, I came across a rare Tri-X negative of myself reflected in a large plate-glass window during that visit. The image is grainy because I had only recently grasped how to develop black and white film in my high school photography class making exposures spotty at best.

Believe it or not, I was actually a kid. That´s me at age 15 with my shiny new Nikon FTN camera reflected in a plate glass window at Disney World.

When our tour reached Kennedy Space Center the following afternoon our bus was guided to an area restricted to the general public which was filled with news photographers from around the world. My Nikon 200mm telephoto lens was sorely lacking in reach therefore in an instant of envy, I asked one veteran pressman with a Nikon 800mm lens if I could attach my Nikon camera body to his lens mount. He answered “Sorry kid … can't do”. It was at that moment I realized a couple of things. I would strongly endeavor to never be short-lens again and I was determined to someday own a press card. Following subsequent pleadings the exasperated photographer snatched my camera body attaching it to his telephoto lens. I made two exposures before he briskly handed it back.

After hours of nagging, I managed to convince a news photographer to let me attach my camera on his Nikon 800mm lens during the Apoll 17 launch sequence.

While mosquitoes dined on me through the night, I monitored the countdown and stared blankly at the distant launchpad floodlights. Then Mission Control abruptly announced a master alarm alert thereby halting the launch sequence. The anxiety flowing through my body was punishing because a possible postponement could thwart any chance of me seeing another manned Moon launch in my lifetime. Following an agonizing delay, the NASA flight official gave the green light and the countdown resumed. No one sighed a sense of relief more than me than me.

Over the echoing loudspeakers, Capcom announced the final ten-second launch sequence. This is what I had been waiting for, it was really happening. I pressed my eye to the viewfinder as my finger lightly touched the release button. T-minus 3, 2, 1, then a blinding light lit up the sky, scattering dozens of silhouetted birds from the darkened marshland. As the delayed shock waves rumbled the ground I instantly realized that my exposure setting was horribly wrong! After a shocking split-second, I hoisted my entire camera assembly with dangling tripod legs to my eye while frantically adjusting the aperture dial to f8.0 and increasing the shutter speed dial to 1/250th of a second. I struggled to focus a steady image and cocked the film advance twice before the 7.5 million pound burning engines were a distant flame in the night sky. Feeling like a complete idiot I questioned how I could screw up such an important moment in my life. I had no idea what the proper exposure should have been and I sadly returned to the bus.

Apollo 17 lifts off from Launch Complex 39A during a rare night launch. The moment was almost lost when I miscalculated the exposure.

To this day, I barely recollect anything from the historic Apollo 17 liftoff because at that moment I was so distracted by blunder and disappointment it is a distant blur. On my return to California a few days later, I cycled my bike to a local camera shop and picked up my processed Kodachrome 64 film. As I placed each transparency on a light box, my mood sank as slide after slide was blank. Then, near the bottom of the yellow box, a tiny splash of yellow glowed from the center frame. I nervously checked the sharpness with a Schneider loupe and was thrilled to see that the blastoff had turned out perfectly. Though a higher shutter speed would have been preferred, I had successfully recorded a historical moment of the last men to the Moon.