Nikon at Cape Kennedy – Part 1 – Apollo program

Several times over the years, I have been told that I should document all of Nikon’s actitites at the Cape Kennedy Space Center. in fact, I was asked to put a piece together for the Nikon archives when I retired. I was there for a lot of it but I had to contact a lot of friends that were there from the beginning. Luckily some of them are still around. It was fun gathering this stuff – I hope you enjoy it for what it is. A history lesson from a photographers point of view of this amazing time in America.

This post is dedicated to those that led the way and showed us how – Ralph Morse, John Slack, Ron Thompson, Red Huber and others that my memory fails to recall; and also to Mike Phillips – my friend and fellow student of remotes at the Cape. Those of you that knew Mike, know what he meant to me, NPS, Nikon and everyone he came in touch with.

 

Early Days – You don’t know how easy it is until you know how hard it was!

Nikon’s roots at Cape Kennedy go all the way back to the early days of the Apollo program. Jerry Brown and Ron Thompson, from Nikon, were at the Apollo 4 launch in November of 1967. Jerry was the head of the Technical Services department at the time. Jerry and Ron Thompson (tech rep extraordinaire) would rent a motorhome and park it in the lot near the press center. They would pick up the motorhome prior to each launch over in Orlando and drive it to the parking lot at Press site 39A. They would provide loan and repair service to all the shooters. 

They became the Nikon guys at the Cape and would show up at each launch. John Slack, a photographer for Florida Today (later to become USA Today), was one of the early photographers trying to capture up close images of the launches by putting out remotes in the marsh area around the launch pad.

According to John, Ron was really a great guy and helped me tremendously, as did Jerry…and were key to inspiring me to come up with the remote sound system for actuating my Nikon F, as I couldn’t afford to do what Ralph Morse and the boys from National Geographic were doing, which was using high end Bausch & Lomb telescopes with light sensors in their eye piece aimed at the Saturn V flame buckets to set off the cameras. I fondly remember forming friendships with Jerry and Ron, and the Japanese techs they would bring down with them thru 1967/68 for the early Apollo flights, and one of my most vivid memories was when they totally overhauled a Nikon F motor drive for me that had been damaged by water unrelated to the Apollo missions, and as I said, they really encouraged me as a 19 year old kid to keep going to get that special shot up against the big boys.

John was later offered a job at Nikon and joined the Nikon team in 1970 as a Technicnical Representative/Nikon School Instructor where he worked until 1976.

During the Apollo Program, the NASA news center was located in Cocoa Beach. You had to drive down into Cocoa Beach to pick up your credentials before you could get onto the property. To provide on-site public affairs offices, a Charter-Sphere Dome from the Third Century America exhibition near the VAB during the US Bicentennial in 1976 was later moved to the mound. In 1983, a larger dome replaced it. A permanent building, the current KSC News Center, replaced that dome in December 1995. In those early days it was nothing more than the left over structure with viewing stands in front of it. All the press were assigned seats in the viewing stands and the photographers would set up in front of them.

1024px-LC-39_Press_Site 1280px-LC-39_Grandstand_-_Apollo_12

                                           NASA photos

 

 

 

 

My involvement started when I landed an assignment to shoot the last Apollo mission for Newsweek magazine (December 7, 1972), I was a freelance shooter over in the Orlando area. This also was my first opportunity to use NPS services. In fact, John and Ron asked me if I would drive the motorhome over to the Cape since they would not get there until the next morning. I had known Ron for years since we both worked at the Lexington Herald newspaper in the 60’s. This was before the “official” start of what is now NPS. The first cards were issued in 1973. Back then it was just the Nikon guys over in the trailer if you needed help. I joined Nikon in 1974 also as a Technicnical Representative/Nikon School Instructor.

Apollo

Command Module pilot Ron Evans saying goodbye to his wife as he leaves the prep building to head out to the launch pad for Apollo 17. Shot with a borrowed F2 from “The Nikon Guys” ©Bill Pekala

Most of the photos came from long lenses from the press dome with very few remotes even allowed. Ralph Morse from Life magazine, John Slack from Florida Today, National Geographic staff, guys from the Orlando Sentinel, and a small handful of others were the first allowed to place remote cameras. They invented their own techniques for remote images of the rocket launch.

 

                                              Remote of Apollo 17 liftoff © John Slack

This was not easy as there were no electronic triggers or other neat devices to “just plug it in” and get great shots. Even double exposures were next to impossible, requiring shooting one image, rewinding the film to right spot and then exposing the 2nd shot, of course, adjusting for the exposure if necessary.

One of the most famous shots is a double exposure of the Saturn V on the pad and the moon taken by John Slack. John shot a whole role of moons marking the starting point on the film leader so he could later reload the film. A lot of work, and trial and error in prep for the actual shot. No magic buttons!

Apollo on the pad – double exposure of moon © John Slack

Ralph also tried double exposures, infrared film and even high-speed shots with a high speed Hulcher. The guys that had bigger budgets relied on homemade equipment consisting of photocells on scopes pointed at the flame bucket. Lower budget guys like John Slack developed their own sound triggers.

light-trigger

A photocell at the eyepiece of a spotting scope – This photo taken duing the Shuttle program shows that some were still using this technique. Not too dependable depending on which way the wind blew the smoke. ©Bill Pekala

According to John, “My first attempt at a sound actuated Nikon (the first ever) was Apollo 8, and Jerry and Ron were behind me in hoping that it worked, which it did. I then used it for Apollo 9 and Apollo 10, and then on Apollo 11, where I was fortunate enough to get the shot for which I received a Pulitzer Prize nomination.”

Apollo 17 ignition-small

Apollo 17 liftoff from Press site 39A – this was with a 600mm lens borrowed from “the Nikon Guys” – This was as good as it got if you didn’t set out remotes. ©Bill Pekala

Because they photographed with remote camera, the results were dramatic as the cameras were so close to the rockets. Ralph was even allowed to place a Nikon F in the water runoff trough that cooled the launch pad on ignition. That camera was destroyed but later found with film still intact and recorded the flames in the trench right up until it hit the camera. The last frame showed heat bubbles on the film as the camera got fried.

Apollo 17 was the last in the lunar landing program and its only night launch. Being a night launch prompted a resurgence in attendance which by then had dwindled to only the hard core news agencies and magazines. This brought an end to major activities at the Cape until the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project launch in 1975. During that low activity time frame, NASA launched the un-manned Pioneer craft and in 1977 both of the Voyager crafts, of course NPS was there even though they were unmanned.

A special thanks to John Slack for the use of his photos from these early days.

  1. Bernie Campoli says:

    Nikon at KSC off to a good Start,Thanks For Posting Bill.

  2. Miles Smith says:

    Bill,

    I really enjoyed reading this post on the Apollo 17 launch. I was there as a 9th grader with a school group and just remember that night turned into day in an instant and the booming sound from the Saturn V engines. Thanks for taking us behind the scenes with the pioneer photographers of the space program.

    • Thanks for the comment – you remember correctly – you could read a newspaper over on the beach (7 miles away) it became so bright. I have tried many times to explain to people whaat it was like and nothing properly describes the feeling

  3. Bill, I found your blog via Jim Arnett. My father is Rex Miller, a name that I assume your familiar with. I was fortunate enough to be able to watch one of the Apollo launches (16, I think) as a kid from the press viewing area with my Dad and Mom. Good times, for sure.

    As for remote triggering devices, I still have the one that my Dad built and used for the Nikon Apollo program. It was a VOX made from an inexpensive Radio Shack “Science Fair” kit. It was housed in a tupperware box to add moisture resistance. The simply carbon mic was inserted into a toilet paper tube covered if Gaff tape to add directional ability to the mic. When the sound of the rocket engine reached the mic, a relay would close and fire the motor drive that was connected with zip line and a two prong household plug. I’ll send you photos that I have of the device.

    • Geoff, of course I remember Rex. Met him several times. He, Jim Arnett, Dave Brady, Fred Sisson – great guys and I’m honored to have known them. I would love to have the photo for my archive – I know most of the early Apollo triggers were based on that Radio Shack kit. The early Shuttle triggers were the same – The local Cocoa Beach RS got wise and stocked up for the 2nd Shuttle launch. You can email the photos to me at billpekala@me.com Thanks

      • Bill, I’ve sent you the photos. Hope you enjoy them. The VOX is a neat souvenir of a fun memory of my childhood. I just talked to my Dad about it and he confirmed Jim Arnett’s recollection that the idea to use the RS kit was John Slack’s. He’s not sure if the VOX that I have was one built by him or one of John’s.

        • Thanks – got the photos – brings back memories. John and Ron were the wizards that taught us how to do all this at the beginning. I think I’ll put one in an upcoming post so people can see what it like.

Leave a Reply