Apollo 50th: ‘Picturing Apollo 11’: Unseen Photos Put You in the Moment

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Book Cover Image: University Press of Florida, Background Image: WikiImages from Pixabay
Book Cover Image: University Press of Florida, Background Image: WikiImages from Pixabay

When we think of the moon landing, there are certain iconic images that immediately spring to mind. Neil Armstrong’s iconic, if grainy, first step, Aldrin standing on the surface with Armstrong reflected in his visor, the American flag planted in the lunar regolith. But those images don’t begin to tell the full story of a mission that took years of planning, months of testing, and involved the hard work and dedication of thousands of people from dozens of countries working together. Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments by J.L. Pickering and John Bisney attempts to show us more of that amazing story through unseen photos.

Pickering opens the book (after an introduction from Neil Armstrong’s son Rick) by explaining how he began collecting original NASA prints in the early 1970s, his collection eventually expanding to include slides, negatives and more, even before the digital era brought a wealth of new archive material to the fore. In the book, he attempts to show as many previously unpublished images as possible, while still making sure the images selected tell the story in the best way possible.

Picturing Apollo 11 Sample Page, Image: University of Florida Press
Picturing Apollo 11 Sample Page, Image: University of Florida Press

Picturing Apollo 11 is divided into ten chapters that tell Apollo 11’s story chronologically.

Chapter one, “Three to Get Ready” looks at the history of the Apollo 11 astronauts, exploring their backgrounds and the reasons they were selected for this important mission, while chapter two, “Delivering the Team and the Machine,” looks at the announcement of the team through official press photos, and the arrival of the first Saturn V parts at Cape Kennedy, more than six months prior to launch.

The next two chapters, “Assembly and Checkout” and “Rolling Toward Launch” show the gradual stacking of the Saturn V and it’s rollout to the launch platform, as well as the astronauts undergoing various types of training and visiting their future vehicle. These images continued into chapter five, “Training Makes Perfect” where we watch the entire Apollo team training for every element of the mission.

The training reaches its conclusion in ‘Final Preparations’ where the Apollo 11 team conduct a full mission rehearsal just a few weeks prior to launch, final adjustments are made to the Saturn V and the Apollo spacecraft and tourists begin to flock to the Florida coast ready to witness the launch for themselves while local businesses make the most of the opportunity.

Photographs of Neil Armstrong, Image: University of Florida Press
Photographs of Neil Armstrong, Image: University of Florida Press

Finally, in “Fire and Thunder” the mission gets underway. We see the astronauts undergo final medical and technical checks, the army of international press ready to record every moment, the thousands of tourists filling up every inch of grass and beach on the Space Coast, and the VIP guests at Cape Kennedy, as well as close up photos of the launch itself which showcase the immense power of the Saturn V as it begins its journey. In “Men to the Moon,” we see many of the most familiar photos of Picturing Apollo 11, those taken by the astronauts during the mission. These are mixed in with photos taken back on Earth of the astronauts’ families, mission control, and local businesses in Houston wishing the mission well.

The final two chapters, “Safe Return” and “Celebrating the Memories” document the recovery of the Apollo Command Module from the Pacific Ocean to the USS Hornet, the astronauts’ weeks in quarantine, and the celebrations that followed their eventual release – from ticker tape parades to presidential dinners and a world tour where they met royalty and dignitaries in 20 countries. This final chapter also follows the careers of the three men after Apollo 11, and the events they attended to commemorate Apollo’s milestone anniversaries.

Picturing Apollo 11 Sample Page 2, Image: University of Florida Press
Picturing Apollo 11 Sample Page 2, Image: University of Florida Press

Picturing Apollo 11 was by far one of my favorite Apollo books from all I’ve read this year. The wealth of photos included really help put you into the mission as it happened and bring it to life in a way I had never experienced before. It’s easy to forget that Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were three normal men who became extraordinary, but seeing photos of them in everyday clothing, laughing, talking, and doing average things such as signing a car rental agreement helps remind us that Apollo wasn’t a miracle, it was proof of what ordinary humans can achieve when we work together.

On the downside, another, less enjoyable, point was hammered home by Picturing Apollo 11. It’s impossible to look at all the group photos in the book and not notice how similar everyone looks. If there’s an opposite to diversity, then these photos capture it. The single photograph of a group of summer interns who are nearly all female and POC practically leaps from the page because it stands out so much in what is otherwise a vast sea of white men. This serves as a stark reminder of how few women and minorities were included in the Apollo program – or at least, deemed worthy enough to photograph. Even well-known women involved in Apollo, such as Margaret Hamilton, do not appear in any of the photographs.

This is a book I know I will return to again and again, whenever I want to be reminded of the remarkable accomplishments of Apollo 11. If you buy just one book this summer to learn more about the moon landings, I would highly recommend Picturing Apollo 11.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.
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