By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; C07
Bill Taub, 86, a self-taught NASA photographer who documented the country's major aeronautics and space-flight events from 1958 to 1975, including the missions that sent the first men into orbit and onto the moon, died Feb. 20 at Doctors Community Hospital in Lanham. He had pneumonia and multiple organ failure.
Though he was rarely credited by name, Mr. Taub took nearly every official picture of the astronauts who led the nation's early forays into space and played a central role in shaping public perception of NASA's work. He was often the only photographer with access to training sessions and closed engineering meetings during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, and his images showed the anxiety of those who orchestrated the space program's first-ever feats. In one photograph, taken immediately after the launch of the Saturn booster, a throng of NASA personnel crane their necks in anticipation and apprehension.
"We were really pioneering in so many ways, even the training exercises, there was tension -- and I think Bill captured that," astronaut Alan Shepard, whose 1961 Mercury flight made him the first man in space, said in a NASA video about Mr. Taub.
Charged with documenting NASA's work for publicity and posterity, Mr. Taub was often one of the last people to see the astronauts before liftoff, earning the nickname "Two More Taub" for his insistence, always, on snapping just a couple more shots.
His photographs appeared in Life, Look and National Geographic magazines, among others. They captured such iconic moments in American history as John Glenn entering the Friendship 7 capsule that carried him into orbit in 1962 and such tragedy as the aftermath of the 1967 Apollo 1 accident, in which three astronauts were killed during a training exercise.
In 1969, he accompanied Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who had become instant celebrities after their successful moon-landing mission, on their round-the-world tour. Mr. Taub chronicled their heroes' welcome, shooting some 200 rolls of film in 45 days as the group visited 27 cities in 24 countries.
William Paul Taub was born April 21, 1923, in Lorain, Ohio. He grew up during the golden age of railroads and taught himself about photography while taking pictures of steam engines as a boy.
When Mr. Taub was a teenager, his brother Fred landed a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency that would become NASA. Fred's supervisors liked him well enough that they offered to hire Mr. Taub as well. He was 17 years old and working as a clerk for Lake Terminal Railroad when he received a telegram inviting him to become a builder of aircraft models at NACA's Langley Field in Hampton, Va.
Not long after he arrived, he succeeded in photographing, with his own nimble Leica camera, the spark of an engine inside a cylinder -- a feat that NACA's official photographers, armed with the wrong equipment, had been unable to accomplish. The success earned Mr. Taub the attention of Langley officials and a new job as a photographer.
He took pictures for NACA publications and was especially known for his artistic photographs of the agency's wind tunnel, which engineers used to study aircraft designs.
In 1958, Mr. Taub moved to Washington to work as a senior photographer at the headquarters of brand-new NASA, which Congress had created to spur the nation's fledgling space-flight efforts. His assignments as the agency's photographer of the seven original Mercury astronauts and, later, the Gemini and Apollo missions, kept him away from home for up to 150 days a year as he traveled to training sessions, shuttle launches and recovery sites.
He'd return to National Airport from one trip only to be met by his wife and daughter, bearing a suitcase full of clean clothes. They'd eat dinner together and he'd get right back aboard a plane.
"What I'm totally ashamed of," he said in 2006, "is I cheated my family of not being home for dinner for hundreds of evenings for 30 years."
While he traveled, he had the time to work on detailing tiny trains for a model railroad he was building in his Bowie home and he met celebrities from around the world. He diligently recorded their names -- including Muhammad Ali, Bob Hope, Indira Gandhi, Frank Sinatra and Queen Elizabeth -- in a spiral notebook reserved for that purpose.
"He had stories about every one of them," Mr. Taub's daughter, Myra Keeler, said in an interview last week. He got along particularly well with Sinatra because of a shared interest in model trains, she said.
In addition to his daughter, of Elkridge, survivors include his wife of 63 years, the former Nadine Ayers, of Bowie; and two brothers, Fred Taub of Mitchellville and Don Taub of Huntington Beach, Calif.