J.L. Pickering and John Bisney, Photographing America’s First Astronauts: Project Mercury Through the Lens of Bill Taub. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2023. Images. Bibliography. Hbk. 340 pp.
Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie
In 2019, I wrote a book review for From Balloons to Drones, where I began the review by saying:
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 extremely fine one at that.
That particular review was for J.L. Pickering and John Bisney’s Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments. I followed that specific review a few years later with the same author’s Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years, another excellent collection of photographs and vignettes from the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Pickering and Bisney’s newest work, Photographing America’s First Astronauts: Project Mercury Through the Lens of Bill Taub, from Purdue University Press, claims to be the ‘most complete photographic account of Project Mercury ever published.’ With more than 600 photographs across 340 pages, it is hard to argue that they have not accomplished this. This is the sixth space-related photography book from Pickering and Bisney, which is clearly a life-long passion for both. Pickering has explored the photos of the US crewed space program for nearly 50 years, and journalist Bisney, a retired national news correspondent, covered the US space program for more than 30 years. Their combined 80+ years of experience is clearly demonstrated in how they choose their photos and, more importantly, in how they describe every image providing a photographic journey and an excellent history.
There can be little doubt that Project Apollo has garnered more photography books than Project Mercury or Project Gemini – Apollo Remastered: The Ultimate Photographic Record (2022) and Apollo: VII – XVII (2018) are two recent excellent examples. However, it is refreshing to see a new approach to a space photography book and the documentation of the Mercury 7 program. This book features the photography of William (Bill) Taub, NASA’s first staff photographer. Previously Taub served as a photographer for NASA’s predecessor organisation, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Taub travelled extensively with the Mercury astronauts. Taub followed the astronauts on many of their travels, capturing thousands of photographs of the Mercury 7 between 1959 and 1963. These photos are both official and candid from an individual who was truly a fly-on-the-wall of Project Mercury from start to finish.
Where many might claim to be publishing ‘never-before-seen images,’ in this case, it is true, as the authors gained access to Taub’s collection of photos, slides, and negatives after his passing. What they discovered and published is – without fear of hyperbole on my part – truly the greatest collection of photos of America’s first crewed space program and its famous seven members. Herein, each of the Mercury 7 get their own chapter, but the supporting cast is not ignored either, as the NASA leaders and support members also find themselves highlighted. Chapters one and two focus on the ‘Steps to Space’ and ‘The People of Mercury,’ (it was a great pleasure to see Astronaut Nurse Lieutenant Dee O’Hara highlighted). Chapters three through nine are dedicated to the originals themselves: Alan Shepard/Mercury-Redstone 3, Gus Grissom/Mercury-Redstone 4, John Glenn/Mercury-Atlas 6, Deke Slayton/Destiny Delayed, Scott Carpenter/Mercury-Atlas 7. Wally Schirra/Mercury-Atlas 8, and Gordon Cooper/Mercury-Atlas 9. Although a photographic record of the astronauts and Project Mercury, Pickering and Bisney also included many family photos as well continuing the tradition of the focus on the ones who remained on the ground and supported the astronauts the most: Louise Shepard, Betty Grissom, Annie Glenn, Marge Slayton, Rene Carpenter, Lo Schirra, and Trudy Cooper and their children.
Photographing America’s First Astronauts is another stunning success in a series of works that will undoubtedly be found on the bookshelf of everyone who loves the golden age of spaceflight. Since the authors have so adroitly covered the first astronauts, might this reviewer suggest a book on the NASA Astronaut Group 8 which included the first female and minority astronauts?
Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Command Historian at the United States Air Force Academy. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of The Air Force Way of War, Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force, and Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header image: The Mercury Seven astronauts with a US Air Force Convair F-106B Delta Dart aircraft at Langley Air Force Base. From left to right: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, 26 January 1961. (Source: Wikimedia)