May 2023 marks two remarkable anniversaries in the history of Project Mercury and the Space Race. Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut to travel into space on May 5, 1961, and Gordon Cooper’s 34-hour Mercury-Atlas 9 spaceflight became the concluding Mercury mission sixty years ago today (May 15). NASA Staff photographer Bill Taub saw it all through the lens of his camera, and now the reading public can too. Authors John Bisney and J. L. Pickering answered a few questions about their new book, Photographing America’s First Astronauts: Project Mercury Through the Lens of Bill Taub, which has been well-received with reviews in Forbes Space and From Balloons to Drones, as well as coverage on collectSPACE and WLFI.
Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?
John: This book showcases hundreds of unpublished photos documenting Project Mercury, America’s first manned space program, by NASA’s first staff photographer, Bill Taub. As a result, not only does it include many more images from Mercury than any previous book, but the vast majority have also never been seen before. Bill had unmatched access to the seven men chosen as the first astronauts, so his photos provide an intimate, behind-the-scenes look from 1959-1963.
JL: This book is a wonderful compilation of behind-the-scenes images of Project Mercury. The book should give the reader a better understanding of how the early days of manned space flight was made up of a well-rounded team of people with the goal of safely getting a man in space.
Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?
John: Our goal is to publish photos that will add to the historical understanding of Project Mercury. They often provide details or illuminate situations beyond what is commonly known. Our motivation is that my coauthor, JL, obtained access to Taub’s archives of thousands of photos, slides and negatives, working with his daughter and son-in-law. We couldn’t resist bringing the best of this treasure-trove to print.
JL: The goal of this book is to share some of these wonderful images taken by Bill Taub that have been stored away for decades.
Q: How is this book different from your previous books? How is it similar?
John: This book follows the same basic template of our previous five books: pull together hundreds of rare NASA photographs and provide detailed, accurate captions. What’s different, however, is that almost all of the images came from the same photographer, Bill Taub. We devote an entire chapter to each Mercury mission, as well as two chapters that set the stage.
JL: John and I basically follow the same game plan as with previous books. This particular book is the first time we have worked from a single collection that consisted of so many rare images.
Q: Did either of you know Bill Taub personally? Can you tell us a bit about him?
John: We were fortunate enough to meet Bill and spend some time with him at his home in suburban Washington, DC in the late 1990s. As you might imagine, he was quite a character — extremely enthusiastic and talkative. He also showed us his elaborate model train setup in his basement.
JL: I had communicated with Bill by mail for many years. We were eventually able to arrange a visit with Bill at his home in Maryland. Bill was very engaging and was more than happy to go through some NASA material with us and point out photos that he had taken.
Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?
John: Researching captions for our books always leads to some surprises, because I learn a lot more about aspects of the people or hardware that is now to me. It also provides some fresh insights into how things all went down sixty years ago.
JL: I was surprised at how many images from the Project Mercury era had basically been “lost” for so many years.
Q: Do you have a favorite photograph from this book? What makes it stand out for you?
John: I have several! But you asked about one, so I’d pick a full-page informal color photo of Bill with astronaut Alan Shepard in the white room at the launch pad. Bill has one of his cameras around his neck, and while Shepard was fairly well-known as one of the Mercury astronauts, he hadn’t flown in space yet. Both are young men pausing for a candid shot, not fully-aware of the history they would both soon create.
JL: My favorite images are the nighttime views of the Redstone rocket being fueled. They provide a somewhat surreal scene of man and machine heading to the stars.
You can get 30% off Photographing America’s First Astronauts and any other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE30 at checkout.