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Monday, August 21, 2006 - Page updated at 08:51 AM

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Boeing team members to recount 1966 "picture of the century"

Seattle Times staff reporter

On the wall above Ron Kaufman's desk is a large framed black-and-white photo once labeled "the picture of the century."

Shot on Aug. 23, 1966, some 232,000 miles from Earth, it is the first photo taken of our planet as seen from deep space.

It shows the moon in the foreground, and, in the distance, Earth, half-illuminated by the sun.

Other photos, such as the famous Apollo 8 color picture taken in 1968 of Earth rising beyond the moon's horizon, have also been labeled pictures of the century.

But there is no denying the importance of that first black-and-white photo, even though it is of considerably lower quality, assembled from 60 separate strips of 35-mm film as it was transmitted back to Earth.

"It points the camera back at us," said Therese Mulligan, chairwoman of the graduate program in imaging art at the Rochester Institute of Technology, about that first picture. "All of a sudden the world gets a lot smaller."

Every day, that picture reminds Kaufman, 73, of the extraordinary feat he and other Boeing engineers accomplished 40 years ago with their work on the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft, built right here in Seattle.

Lunar Orbiter discussion


What: Panel presentation on development of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft and its mission

Who: Capt. Lee Scherer, USN (Ret.), NASA Lunar Orbiter program manager; Matt Grogan, member of the Lunar Orbiter Flight Path Analysis and Control (FPAC) team; fighter pilot Bill Anders, USAF Reserve (Ret.) and an Apollo 8 astronaut, who will discuss the importance of the orbiter to astronaut training; Dale Shellhorn (moderator), also of the FPAC team, which included engineers who worked on Boeing's Lunar Orbiter spacecraft; Don Wilhelms, retired astrogeologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

When: 2-4 p.m. today

Where: William M. Allen Theater, Museum of Flight, 9404 E. Marginal Way S., Seattle, 206-764-5720 or www.museumofflight.org

Cost: Free with admission to the museum ($6.50-$14, depending on age)

At 2 p.m. today, through photographs and the stories they remember, the engineers and others will tell about their quest, in a free event at the Museum of Flight.

"We were all pioneers"

Boeing built five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft and then guided them to circle the moon, with a mission to photograph possible landing sites for the Apollo astronauts.

"We were all pioneers. It was exciting. Everyone who worked on the program has felt it was the best thing they've ever done," said Kaufman.

It wasn't just engineers who worked on the Lunar Orbiter. At the peak of the project, which start-to-finish lasted but 40 months, Boeing had 1,100 staff members assigned to it.

A few days ago, Kaufman was home in Mercer Island organizing material for today's presentation, along with another retired Boeing engineer, George Burmeister, of Kent.

Historic 1960s photos showed many of the Boeing team members in stereotypical engineer uniform — short-sleeved white shirt, skinny tie with a tie clip, ID badge and, of course, plastic pocket protector full of pens. For variation, some sported long-sleeved shirts.

"We were all in our 30s. We had management that trusted us," said Burmeister.

Things got done differently back then.

Burmeister recalled another young engineer who showed during a test simulation that the spacecraft's solar panels would vibrate severely. The engineer suggested moving them to a more rigid place.

It was an important decision. There were no committee meetings.

"They took his word at it," said Burmeister. "They believed what we had to say."

NASA ordered five spacecraft to be flown because its "reliability studies" gave the craft a 1-in-5 chance of success.

The engineers beat all the odds.

Not only did the relatively tiny spacecraft — 5 feet by 5 feet without the solar panels and antennas extended — photograph all the possible Apollo landing sites, but the five Lunar Orbiters also shot just about all of the moon's 14 million square miles of surface.

And the engineers did all this, said Kaufman, with technology that would be considered primitive by today's standards.

"Anybody's home computer would outperform what we had then," he said.

The picture of the century was taken early in the mission, from Lunar Orbiter I. The spacecraft was equipped with a 150-pound Eastman Kodak camera that had its origins in the mid-1950s in American spy satellites.

It was perfect for a lunar mission. It used extremely low-speed film (ASA 1.6, in comparison to ASA 800 commonly used in today's disposable cameras), so it wasn't vulnerable to solar flares.

And the camera developed the film using a semi-dry system, so no liquid developer or fixer was needed.

Another of the Boeing engineers, Dale Shellhorn, 74, who now lives in Tucson, Ariz., remembered how he suggested the picture be taken. It meant turning the spacecraft around so the camera would point toward Earth, something not in the mission plan.

His fellow engineers and the NASA team decided it was worth doing.

Not in the playbook

Robert Helberg, head of the Boeing Lunar Orbiter team, found out about the picture only after it was taken. He went looking for whoever hadn't followed the official mission playbook, said Shellhorn.

But Shellhorn wasn't fired. The photo was transmitted around the world by news services — a public-relations bonanza — and Helberg eventually even used it on his business cards.

"He did get his revenge on me," said Shellhorn about his boss. "He made me a supervisor. Supervisors never get overtime."

That's the kind of stories the engineers will be telling today about the mission of their lifetime, its success and why they have so many fond memories.

It's quite simple, said Ron Kaufman: "They let us do our job."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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