Apollo at 50: In search of heroes and simplicity

I grew up as a child of the Space Race. Sputnik was launched when I was in the sixth grade. Like many of my classmates, space became part of my life, and we watched every launch — many were spectacular flaming failures — with gritted teeth and hopeful glances. Had photography not intervened in high school, I have no doubt I would have made my way into engineering and, with some luck, help put rockets into the air.

Buzz Aldrin

Lunar module pilot, Apollo 11

Alfred M. Worden

Command module pilot, Apollo 15

My generation knew the names of all seven Mercury astronauts. We knew they loved fast planes and fast cars, and while they were a team (at least in Life magazine, who’d bought the rights to their stories) each wanted to be on the next flight, the next breakthrough mission. When the Apollo astronauts were named, it became a much bigger squad to keep track of, and we had to be a bit more selective. Yet every flight — as the Gemini program perfected docking and spacewalking techniques — proved that the systems really did work.

Michael Collins

Command module pilot, Apollo 11

Charlie Duke

Lunar module pilot, Apollo 16

Watching the Saturn V’s lumbering takeoff, seeing it hover on its pillar of flame and smoke, and waiting those few seconds to be smacked around by the man-made thunder and shock waves, was one of the great monumental events of the 20th century. For years afterward (I watched the launches of Apollo 10, 11 and 12, all in 1969), I felt that every American who’d ever forked over income taxes should be invited to see “your government at work” and for just a moment feel intense pride in what the government had done.

Fred Haise

Lunar module pilot, Apollo 13

Walter Cunningham

Lunar module pilot, Apollo 7

We learned to say the Apollo crew names as if they were the world’s most famous law firms: Borman-Anders-Lovell or Armstrong-Aldrin-Collins. They were always pronounced as if they were a single word, bound together in our thoughts of them, as they were in the Apollo command module headed to the moon.

Ken Mattingly

Command module pilot, Apollo 16

James Lovell

Command module pilot, Apollo 8, and commander, Apollo 13

When it came time for me to capture photographs of these intrepid travelers, I was drawn to simplicity, their earthly surroundings, forgoing any thought of props. When I brought out my 4x5 camera with a favorite lens repurposed from a 1943 reconnaissance camera from a P-38 fighter, it was as if they’d met an old friend. They, like those of us who watched, waited and wondered, are all 50 years older than they were in 1969.

Thomas P. Stafford

Commander, Apollo 10

Glynn Lunney

Flight director, Gemini and Apollo programs

Many of the Apollo astronauts were born in or around 1930. They are in their late 80s or early 90s, yet as a group they remain incredibly sharp, vital and youthful. As a photographer, I was most interested in trying to simply see what they have become. So much life has passed by. So many lines and forehead creases have been justly earned.

Bill Anders

Lunar module pilot, Apollo 8

James A. McDivitt

Commander, Apollo 9

The lunar voyager fraternity is a terribly tiny one, and every member has had a moment that represents us all. In celebrating their endeavors this year — 50 years since the first lunar landing — it might be just enough to stand outside on a summer night and gaze at a brightly lit moon. Think about it — they really went there.

David Scott

Command module pilot, Apollo 9, and commander, Apollo 15

Joe Engle

Support crew, Apollo 10

Jack Lousma

Support crew, Apollo 9, 10, 13

Rusty Schweickart

Lunar module pilot, Apollo 9

Dee O’Hara

Aerospace nurse, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs

George Abbey

Operations for Apollo program and former director of Johnson Space Center

Gene Kranz

Flight director, Gemini and Apollo programs

Photos and text by David Burnett/Contact Press Images for The Washington Post. Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick. Produced by Jeffrey Smith. Design by Courtney Kan.