By Bill Derby, Publisher
Fifty years ago next Tuesday, July 16, 1969, Americans waited with bated breath as Apollo 11’s Saturn V’s engines ignited at 1:32 p.m. blasting towards mans’ first attempt at landing humans on the moon. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins’ mission to the moon was 66 years after the Wright Brothers made history with their first recorded airplane flight. History notes that Commander Armstrong carried with him in his personal flight kit pieces of wood and fabric from that Wright Brothers plane to symbolize the great progress made in aviation.
I was just out of the Army, newly married and, between classes at ETSU, working as a photographer at The Johnson City Press-Chronicle. Jimmy Ellis the Press-Chronicle’s chief photographer was my boss. Jimmy was a WW II vet and was a military photographer in the service, same as I. Everyone at the newspaper was preparing for the big day.
Since he was headed to Florida on his family vacation, Jimmy was able to wrangle press credentials to cover the Saturn V moon shot from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. He was super excited about preparing for his trip, but he did have an issue with his camera lens. Even though we had great Nikon camera equipment, Jimmy did not have a long enough lens or would not be close enough to the launch site to get the photo he wanted.
A couple of days later, Jimmy walked in with a long black lens he had borrowed from a camera repairman and friend of his. It was a 500 MM lens made in Russia. It was ironic he had latched on to a Russian lens at a time when we were in the giant space race with Russia.
He was as giddy as a photographer can get with a new piece of equipment and needed to try it out. He wanted to make sure it would work ok and asked me to go along with him up to the roof of the Press building. Jimmy had figured out how far he would be from the actual blast off site and we both decided the Central Baptist Church steeple was about the right distance. He started taking photos of the steeple. The old steeple was taller than the new one that adorns the 150-year old church today. Jimmy’s photos were good and the Russian lens would do the trick.
Just to be sure I remembered correctly, I called Johnny Jones, former family owner of The Johnson City Press-Chronicle, to help me recall and double check my recollection of the events of that week. With his exceptional memory, Johnny confirmed my recollections and even recalled who Jimmy borrowed the lens from, a Mr. Rowe who lived in south Johnson City.
Four days later in lunar orbit in the Command Service Module, Commander Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot, entered the Lunar Module (LM) to descend to the surface of the moon. A little after 1 p.m., the LM separated and was on its way to a lunar landing. An estimated 600 million people around the world watched as the LM made its way to land.
I recall that my mother, dad, Judy and I watched that day glued to the TV. The grainy black and white TV shots from the LM showed it moving slowly as Aldrin and Armstrong looked for a safe place to land. I took photos with my camera of the television screen. We were on the edge of our seats waiting for the safe landing. Finally the LM touched down. It was a historic moment caught on television for the whole world to see and we were sharing part of that historic moment.
We were all breathless and thankful they had landed safely. Men on the moon, and it’s amazing that only 66 years earlier the Wright Brothers first flew their flimsy and fragile airplane.
The Johnson City Press-Chronicle employees had the opportunity to purchase color copies of the actual photos that Armstrong and Aldrin took that historic day with a couple featured in this story. I’m still looking for the black and white prints I took from the TV screen.
Be sure to read our next week’s edition for a very special feature showcasing a local man’s huge NASA collection, including astronaut autographs and personal accounts.