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Review: Spaceshots and Snapshots of Projects Mercury and Gemini


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Spaceshots and Snapshots of Projects Mercury and Gemini: A Rare Photographic History
by John Bisney and J.L. Pickering
Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2015
hardcover, 224 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-8263-5261-3
US$45

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Gemini 4, the second Gemini mission and the first American spaceflight to feature a spacewalk, by Ed White. NASA is celebrating the flight with the release of a new documentary this week about spacewalks and interviews with a current astronaut. You can be sure, though, that much of the coverage of the anniversary will use one of a handful of images of that brief EVA, like this one, or maybe this one, or quite likely this one.

NASA has huge archives of photos, but many of those images, particularly from the early years of the space program, are often inaccessible: trapped in archives not easily accessible, or dispersed among the people who worked on the programs. Books and other publications about the missions “inexorably dipped into only the same small group of ‘greatest hits’ images,” complains John Bisney, a former space journalist and co-author of Spaceshots and Snapshots of Projects Mercury and Gemini.

Books and other publications about the missions “inexorably dipped into only the same small group of ‘greatest hits’ images,” complains Bisney.

As the book’s subtitle—“A Rare Photographic History”—suggests, Bisney and J.L. Pickering seek to go where no space history book has gone before. The book chronicles the Mercury and Gemini missions with images that have largely never been published before. (Bisney writes their original goal was to publish a book entirely of unpublished images; instead, the “great majority” of the images are unpublished, and “almost all” of the others are rare.)

The source of the images is the private collection of Pickering, who has been gathering images from various sources, including NASA, collectors, and various individuals who worked on its programs, since the 1970s. That archive, the book notes, now includes more than 100,000 images from Mercury into the shuttle era. Spaceshots and Snapshots of Projects Mercury and Gemini offers a sampling of those images, illustrating familiar missions in new ways.

Nearly every Mercury and Gemini mission gets its own chapter in the book (Gemini 6 and 7, which rendezvoused in orbit, share a chapter.) After a brief written overview of the mission, running no more than a couple pages, the book then provides that selection of several dozen rare, if not unpublished, images, with captions written by the authors. Besides the images, the book includes photos of some memorabilia, like badges, from the missions.

The images are interesting and, at least to this reviewer’s eye, indeed rare. There’s a mix of publicity photos; candid shots taken before, during, and after the missions; and even a few humorous photos. The images, both black-and-white and color, look good in the large format book with glossy pages. There are a few cases where the images are reproduced in the book too small make out the details referenced in their accompanying captions, like the identity of people in the background.

While the images in the book provide a novel glimpse of the missions, they don’t offer a new history of the missions themselves. The images offer few revelations about the missions for those already familiar with them. That’s not necessarily a shortcoming of the book, but with such a large archive of rare images, one might have expected, or maybe hoped, that they would also offer new insights about those missions. Nonetheless, it’s at least refreshing to get a “new” look at the old missions.

Ultimately, this book is really just a different collection of a relatively small group of images that largely tells the same story.

One disappointment in the book is the lack of clear sourcing of the individual images. The images all come from Pickering’s private collection, but it’s not clear which ones are from NASA archives, which are from private individuals, and so on: there no credit information for each image. That’s important since NASA and other US government images are in the public domain, but corporate or individual photos are not unless explicitly placed there by the copyright owner. Pickering also operates a website about his collection, but primarily sells sets of images on DVD.

Overall, Spaceshots and Snapshots of Projects Mercury and Gemini is an enjoyable book, offering a different look at familiar missions. (A companion book, about the Apollo missions, is scheduled for publication later this year.) But for Bisney’s complaints about the overuse of the “same small group of ‘greatest hits’ images,” this book is really just a different collection of a relatively small group of images that largely tells the same story. Perhaps some day that larger trove of images will be more widely available—especially the NASA images, which the taxpayers long ago paid for—to allow historians and others to review them, and see if there really are new stories they can tell.


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