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In an age of downsizing, it is somewhat ironic that if NASA needs a photo from its historic collection of photographs documenting the space program, it calls Bloomington’s J.L. Pickering.

In an age where almost anything can be found on the Internet, fewer and fewer NASA images seem to be available to the public and even NASA itself, said Pickering, a prolific collector of NASA imagery from the dawn of the space race. He has more than 150,000 NASA images in his collection, probably the largest private collection in the world.

His new book, “Spaceshots & Snapshots of Projects Mercury & Gemini” are filled with images that were made by NASA photographers as the United States battled the Soviet Union for supremacy of the heavens. The book is co-authored with noted space broadcaster John Bisney, who, like Pickering, developed a love for collecting space photographs and other space artifacts.

Pickering and Bisney began planning the book about five years ago.

“I had all these photographs that spanned from the Mercury Program through Apollo and I had told John about the project and he said he wanted to provide the text and captions,” Pickering said.

Pickering would pick out 100 pictures.

“I started laying the book out and a friend offered to make printed pages that I took to the University of New Mexico.”

“They were quite interested,” he said. “The only problem was that they said the book was too long so we split it, with the first book documenting the Mercury and Gemini programs and the second book documenting the Apollo program.”

The second book is scheduled for publication Sept. 15. It is titled “Moonshots and Snapshots” and can be pre-ordered on Pickering recently returned from a book signing tour in Washington, D.C., where he appeared at the National Air and Space Museum. Sales of both books are doing well, he said.

As a child of the 1960s, Pickering had a vague understanding of the space program but did not develop much of an interest until the death of three NASA astronauts in the Jan. 27, 1967, Apollo 1 fire.

“It became obvious that this was a dangerous business and I began to have a fascination with it,” Pickering.

Pickering began to collect articles and other items about the space program and began writing to officials at NASA, bombarding them with letters asking for photographs.

“I guess it was a little like applying for a job,” he said. “You have to be persistent.”

In 1971, at the age of 13, Pickering made his first trip to the Kennedy Space Center and four years later managed to get press credentials to cover a launch. His frequent trips to the space center and the command center in Houston continue today and he has built friendships with other journalists, astronauts and NASA administrators.

From a space enthusiast’s perspective, Pickering’s book feeds an interest in the “not-so-common” NASA image that everyone has seen before. He says his favorite images are of the workers who were not astronauts.

“I found an interest in the everyday men and women who made the space program work,” he said.

Chapters in the book are organized by launch. While the book contains a vast array of space photography by the astronauts themselves, the rarer photographs show scenes that depict work crews who assemble the rockets and help the astronauts prepare for their missions.

There are many previously unseen NASA images -- or at least images few will remember -- like the photograph of a near-drowning Gus Grissom, whose Liberty Bell space capsule sunk at the conclusion to his Mercury mission in July 1961. Grissom took considerable media heat after the loss of the capsule but was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing.

The early years of the U.S. space program provided the public with an assortment of heroes that are well documented in the book. Since the end of the Apollo flights, public interest in the space program has waned.

“The shuttle program just wasn’t very sexy,” Pickering said. The public simply lost interest.

The cost to the space program was significant, Pickering said, noting that funding has gradually fallen year after year. Today, America cannot put its own astronauts into orbit and must rely on Soviet technology to reach the International Space Station.

“There’s an old saying (in the space business),” Pickering said. “No bucks … no Buck Rogers.”

Pickering hopes his book will do something to help reverse that trend.

“During the book tour there were quite a number of older children in the 14-year-old range who came to have their books signed,” Pickering said.

Those “kids” weren’t alive during most of the shuttle program. There’s still something in the space program that is drawing people’s interest, he said.



Photographer for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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