J.L. Pickering and John Bisney, Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2019. Hbk. 264 pp.
A different type of book necessitates a different type of book review. Herein you will not find an author’s argument or a critique thereof since the book being discussed today is a collection of photographs and an excellent one at that. J.L. Pickering and John Bisney have brought us Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, there is sure to be a proliferation of all sorts of materials, merchandise, and collectables celebrating one of, if not the defining moment of the 20th Century and in what will undoubtedly be a crowded field, it will be difficult for printed works to stand out. Pickering and Bisney have accomplished just that, a unique look at the Apollo 11 mission through photographs: both official and candid – many of which have never been published before.
It is common practice for me that when a book arrives in my mailbox, I will take a few minutes and flip through it. It should be noted that when Picturing Apollo 11 arrived on my doorstep, I stopped what I was doing, sat down, and read the entire book (insert joke here about my ‘reading’ a picture book). However, this extremely well-done book did what few other works can do, it stopped me in my tracks. Divided into nine chapters, the book covers everything from the assembly of their Saturn V, training for the mission, all the way through the triumphant return home. Rather than review the book as you might typically find on the site, I have decided to highlight some of my favourite photographs from the book.
Any of the shots of the Saturn V rocket, Service Module, Command Module, or Lunar Module arriving at the Cape and being ‘processed’ and stacked are compelling. However, I found myself especially drawn to photos of the Command Module (CM) wrapped in the protective blue plastic covering (p. 51) – this was how Apollo Nine’s CM came to be known as ‘Gumdrop.’ If you have ever viewed one of the Apollo CMs in a museum setting – I am currently trying to see them all – you have only ever seen the scorched and burned relic after its re-entry. There is something inexplicably ‘technological’ when you view the CM as it was before being mounted on the Service Module; the newness and perfection of the CM in its original state are fascinating. It is also especially entertaining to see the many ‘Remove Before Flight’ banners hanging about the CM as if it has been decorated with red sprinkles in addition to its blue wrapping.
I also enjoyed many of the candid shots of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins during training (pp. 71-80) or visiting (pp. 82-8) the Apollo support sites around the country. Sixties fashion is on full display in these pages and as representative of the times as the astronaut’s moon suits! In this vein, there is an excellent shot of a group of the Apollo Astronauts at the US Navy Diving School in Key West, Florida; love the paisley shirt, Neil!
Military pilots love the T-38, and NASA used the versatile training aircraft to keep up the astronaut’s proficiencies, but also as a way for the astronauts to travel rapidly across the country from Texas to Florida, California, and Missouri. Here, there is an excellent shot of Armstrong and NASA’s Flight Crew Operations Director Deke Slayton (p. 95) strolling away from their parked T-38; while Armstrong looks conservative in his blue flight suit, Slayton looks every bit the fighter pilot and a bit more devil-may-care. Their personalities come forth in the photograph: Armstrong the Engineer, Slayton, the tough-as-nails director.
The pictures from all the moon landings are amazing, but as better equipment was sent up on later missions, those shots became increasingly more precise and crisper. Armstrong and Aldrin suffered from being the first in this regard, but modern photographic enhancement has brought the Apollo 11 shots into better relief. In this regard, my favourite photograph in the book is a shot of Aldrin and the American Flag (p. 193), where if you look close enough, you can clearly see Aldrin’s face inside the suit looking towards Armstrong. As you may know the pictures of Armstrong on the lunar surface are limited, but a great photograph of a relaxed looking Armstrong back inside the Eagle smiling after the EVA was completed sums up his feelings after landing and walking on the moon.
Picturing Apollo 11 is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is a truly unique work and a compelling collection of photographs that is sure to fire the imagination of those who remember the mission and those looking retrospectively at an event they were not around to see. As I closed the book, I again wondered, when will we return?
After you have ordered Picturing Apollo 11, I also highly encourage you to pick up a copy of Apollo VII-XVII a photographic journey through all the Apollo missions.
Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: On 1 March 1968, the Saturn S-IC-6 arrived at the Mississippi Test Facility – today’s NASA Stennis Space Center – from the Michoud Assembly Facility. The was the first stage section of the Saturn V rocket the took Apollo 11 into space. (Source: NASA)