Photographer Ralph Morse saw much of the space program with one eye open and one shut. But boy, did he see it up close and personal.
Born in 1917, Morse proved himself as a young photographer while covering some of the most dramatic moments of World War II. He survived the sinking of a ship in the Pacific theater, went ashore with a camera in Normandy, and was the only civilian photographer present at the German surrender to Eisenhower.
So the editors at LIFE magazine didn’t think twice when choosing a shooter to document the manned space program in the 1960s. Morse had an eye for the human as well as the technological aspects of space travel. And he was adept at getting around the bureaucracy that constantly threatened to hamstring his creativity. He recalls bringing, as any photographer worth his salt would, two cameras to Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight in May 1961. As the first American astronaut was about to make his appearance before boarding the rocket, a rule-hardened NASA drone confronted Morse and told him he could only use one camera. So Morse turned to astronaut Scott Carpenter, handed him a camera, and said, “Scott, start shooting.”
He ended up in the astronauts’ simulators and in their homes. He got to know them and their families personally. He got to know their hobbies. Neil Armstrong was interested in the gadgetry of cameras, Morse recalls, and the two spent lots of time talking photography in casual moments.
Morse rolled out his creativity for a shoot of the Apollo 11 crew and their families (above) at the grand ballroom of the Holiday Inn in Clear Lake, near Houston, a couple months before the moon landing. “We had to have something with the families that was different,” he says. So he rented a huge plastic moon model in New York and had it shipped to Texas. On the way, it got lost. “It was gone for 24 hours,” he recalls. “Big things get lost easily because nobody knows what to do with them.” At the last moment, with the families waiting around, the moon appeared.
Morse was with LIFE until it folded in 1972. He worked for Time Magazine before retiring in 1988. Today, at 92 and living in Florida, he remembers details of the space program as if it were yesterday. “Age has nothing to do with it,” he says. “It’s just a number.”
Check out the gallery below for more of Ralph Morse’s Apollo-era photographs and recollections.
It was Morse who conceived one of the most iconic images in the history of the space program, the liftoff of Apollo 11's Saturn V rocket, captured from atop the launch tower. “The box was [NASA's], the camera was mine,” he says, referring to the protective steel box inside which his Nikon F series with a 20 millimeter lens clicked off some 200 exposures, four per second, as the 3,000-ton rocket ignited and began the climb into space. Morse would name the shot, “Man Leaves Earth.”
Morse fancied shooting the astronauts as they prepared for their mission in simulators. “The lunar module was so tiny, two people could hardly move around in it, let alone three,” he says. So he shot this photo of Armstrong and Aldrin in the LM simulator with a fisheye lens on a camera mounted to the interior on Armstrong’s side. Morse gave Aldrin the other end of a long shutter-release wire, and asked him to make occasional exposures whenever the chance arose. “You use your friends when you can,” says Morse.
Mike Collins during a training session in an Apollo command module simulator. “I was able to go in, as I recall,” says Morse. He remembers that the interior didn't match the real CM. “It was the window that they were studying,” he says. “And it was a clock thing about what he should be seeing at certain times during the mission. He was fine with my being there.” Morse remembers Collins as highly intelligent. Once, in Cocoa Beach, the photographer was shooting Mike and wife Mary relaxing on the sand on the astronaut's day off. “He’s reading,” says Morse, “and has about six or eight paperbacks as his pillow. He read a book faster than anyone.”
Apollo 11 Crew
Morse (sitting) came to know the astronauts well. Here he is at Neil Armstrong's home with Buzz Aldrin (far left), Armstrong, and Mike Collins.
Career at LIFE
Morse was part of a platoon of LIFE photographers, writers, and editors who had unmatched access to NASA and its astronauts. Here he studies photos in preparation for another Apollo launch at the Kennedy Space Center. Each camera mounted in the photo is configured uniquely—"One might be a double exposure camera," he says, "others at certain angles, others with different lenses...You hit one switch and they all went. We always had back-ups. There was no retaking, no rethinking."
Morse was as skilled at navigating the NASA bureaucracy as he was at taking pictures. In 1960, when the Mercury astronauts were flown to a remote Nevada desert site for survival training—no press allowed—Morse scouted the location ahead of time and was on hand to meet his astronaut friends when they arrived.