Photographers don't usually get the sort of fame that writers and broadcasters sometimes enjoy, but they should. When they have the talent and ability of Klaus Wilckens they spend their days looking for new visual ways to tell a story and then preserve it for posterity. It is the photograph that often captures the attention of the public and leads people to read the words someone else has written in order to learn more.
Wilckens knew he wanted to be a photographer very early in his life, and while still in high school, went to work at the Fox Studio in Cocoa, Fla. When he graduated from Cocoa High, he enrolled in the New York Institute of Photography to hone his craft.
After a stint in the Army, he returned to the area to work for Boeing on the Minute Man Missile program as a photo coordinator and expand his credentials in the industrial photography field.
In 1963, Technicolor Corp. won the contract to provide photographic services to NASA, and he was brought on board to document the wide range of activities from construction of facilities, to satellite preparations, astronaut training and launches.
There was no NASA photographer during his 38-year career that had more pictures selected as magazine covers or for photo spreads in various publications. Only rarely did a publication give him credit for a picture. He says knowing that a photograph labeled "NASA Photo" was his was enough.
It was not enough for Wickens to rest on his laurels though. He spent his vacation time for many years earning a master's degree in 1971 from the Wynona School of Photography sponsored by Professional Photographers of America Inc. He was able to study with many of the most famous photographers of the day, such as Joseph Karsh whose portraits of famous people graced all of the top magazines of the era. He learned from lectures by equally famous photographers in numerous fields ranging from industrial, to advertising, to theater.
While much of his photography involved rockets, facilities and launches, he always had his eyes open for the human side of space exploration. He is particularly proud of the pictures he made of employees watching an Apollo or other manned spacecraft lift off, often with tears of pride running down their cheeks.
Four U.S presidents visited Kennedy during his watch and each of them was carefully documented for the history books, along with hundreds of international dignitaries and royalty.
Wilckens says he gained even more respect for the people who ride rockets following the tragic Apollo 1 fire. He was immediately assigned to the investigation board and spent 12 weeks documenting every clue to the cause of the accident.
Still photography was only one facet of his expertise. He spent a lot of his time with motion picture photography, high-speed cameras and tracking cameras.
Despite a full plate of work, Wilckens took an interest in the wildlife on the Kennedy Space Center and its surrounding wildlife refuge. By using a strategically placed Nikon 250 exposure camera, he documented the highly protected American bald eagle family nesting from October to May over a period of 10 years. These pictures have proven very useful to studies by the wildlife community. It was not actually easy to get the set-up exactly right, however. The eagles did not necessarily want to be spied on and ripped out the wiring to the camera the first year in was in the tree.
Thinking back on his career, he considers his most celebrated photograph to be the Enterprise orbiter mounted on the 747 during landing tests at the Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., with three astronaut T-38 chase planes aligned off of each wing.
Another of his favorite pictures is of astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen in their cockpit seats for the maiden flight of Columbia. Later, he photographed the pair with then Vice President George Bush in the Columbia cockpit.
Thinking back over his career, Wilckens is still emotional when he talks about Challenger. "On the early morning of Jan. 28, 1986, I photographed the astronauts suiting up, eating their breakfast and leaving their quarters for the pad and wished them a successful flight. As I was going to the Launch Control Center, I had a few precious moments with several of the family members of the flight crew, never anticipating what was to occur. Spending that day from 3 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next morning made me realize one more time how vulnerable our lives are. Still, I am grateful for being able to get to know each of these gallant heroes who risked their lives for our program of space exploration," Wilckens said.
"I was pleased that the high speed cameras and other photography helped unlock the specific cause of the accident," he said.
There were more high points than low during Wilckens career, including the recognition from having his photograph of the deployment of the drag chute during a shuttle landing at Kennedy selected for a three-dollar stamp by the United State Post Office.
Wilckens says, "It was a 38-year, wonderful ride."