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Trajectory for the stars: Rare photos from the early Space Race

An upcoming book collects hundreds of rare and unpublished photos of NASA's first manned space programs -- Project Mercury and Project Gemini -- just in time for the 50th anniversary of the first US spacewalk.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
4 min read

Gemini IV launches on June 3, 1965, from Cape Kennedy Air Force Station in Florida. University of New Mexico Press

When I think about the early days of the Space Race -- the race between Russia and America to put humans on the moon -- the images in my head shine with a patina of wonder. It was a magnificent time, rich with invention and possibility, spurred on by a rivalry to inspire humanity to even greater heights, culminating in one of the most, if not the most, impressive feats humanity has ever achieved.

Yet, according to John Bisney and J.L. Pickering, our knowledge of that time is limited, stymied by a relative dearth of photographs.

"The relatively small number of published photos has limited the public's understanding of -- and appreciation for -- one of the most stunning accomplishments of the United States if not the human race, which was developing the ability to leave our home planet and, at least briefly, to live and work on another celestial body," Bisney said in an email interview.

"It's also important to remember the United States managed to do that in less than 10 years, and without anything near the computing and communication capabilities we are so reliant on today. It was typewriters, telephones and duplicating machines!"

Bisney, a former Washington, DC-based national news correspondent covering the space program, and Pickering, a space photo historian, have pooled their talents to release a compendium of these images to the public. "Spaceshots and Snapshots of Projects Mercury and Gemini: A Rare Photographic History" is scheduled to launch in June to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Gemini IV, which took place June 3 to 7, 1965 -- the first US mission with a spacewalk, conducted by pilot Edward H. White.

The idea behind the book, Bisney said, is to not just provide a much more comprehensive visual look at the early years of the space race and the people, equipment, processes and locations thereof. it's also to describe it in detail through exhaustive captions.

New book stars NASA's early manned space missions (pictures)

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"We realised that the captions in most space books don't provide extensive descriptions, so we went into significantly greater detail, which means the captions become something of a narrative," he said.

"That helped with another goal, which was to identify as many of the rank-and-file space workers pictured as possible, since they are rarely given their due. We also enjoyed meeting and getting input from many of these people, as well as from a number of astronauts. So putting this book together really became a labour of love intended to share our mutual enthusiasm for this amazing piece of history."

And it has been very much a long labour of love. Pickering obtained his first original NASA prints in the 1970s, after growing up in the '60s when the Space Race was at its peak, and has spent over 40 years collecting enough to provide a thorough resource for authors, museums, astronauts and other historians, via his website Retro Space Images.

"Some of the best material has come from retired NASA personnel and news photographers who were covering the space program in the 1960s and '70s. It is amazing what gets tucked away in basements and sheds, and I've made many auction and eBay purchases as well," Pickering said in an email interview.

"But I also spent many hours deeply digging into the files at JSC [Johnson Space Center], KSC [Kennedy Space Center] and NASA HQ. 'Combed the NASA files' is a claim thrown around with ease by some books, but there's much more to it than visiting a NASA library and browsing what the agency makes available. You must really do some travel and work your contacts to access the back rooms. As a result, my personal collection of high-resolution prints and images now numbers well over 100,000."

The 224-page book collects 689 of these photographs in full colour, with each mission receiving its own entire chapter of images -- other historical accounts usually lump all 10 Gemini missions together, for example -- showing the methodical approach NASA took to space exploration, with each mission building on the efforts of the previous one. This, Bisney explained, means that the important missions will get the recognition they deserve as the foundational building blocks for the Apollo mission.

Pilot Edward H. White, tethered to the craft via a 25-foot (7.62-metre) umbilical. University of New Mexico Press

Looking at sample images from the book, it's hard to pick a favourite. Perhaps it's the one of White's legs as he seemingly tumbles in space, an impossibly human moment so high above the Earth, tethered to the Gemini SC4 by an umbilical cable that also provides an air supply. Or perhaps it's the dramatic launch of the Gemini SC4 -- it's hard not to be awed by the sight of something manmade on a trajectory for the stars.

The two authors have favourite images of that time, too, encapsulating the spirit of the Space Race in very different ways.

"Certainly one of my favourites is a black-and-white photo of the two Gemini VI astronauts in their pressure suits walking up a ramp at the base of the pad before a launch attempt. Several workers in hard hats are reaching out to shake their hands as they pass by," Bisney said.

"To me this image captures so many things -- the can-do attitude of the launch team, the special relationship between the flight crew and those who supported them on the ground, and the intimacy that surrounded the early launches."

For Pickering, it's the ingenuity of the technology, created by human minds and hands, that blows his mind.

"My favourites are night-time images of the mighty Saturn V booster fuelled and venting on the pad. The beast is alive and ready to be unleashed. There is something amazingly beautiful about this majestic rocket gleaming in the night bathed in light. It is still the greatest machine ever built," he said.

"Spaceshots and Snapshots of Projects Mercury and Gemini" will be available as a cloth-bound volume in June from bookstores and the University of New Mexico Press website for $45. It will be followed in September by "Moonshots and Snapshots of Project Apollo."