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The NASA insignia. A blue circle with the word NASA in white across the blue circle. There is also a red vector across the blue circle.

Jon Schneeberger

Photographer, National Geographic

Jon Schneeberger quoted Charles Dicken when referring to his career, “The best of times and the worst of times.” The American space effort had accelerated through the Mercury program into the record breaking Gemini series, advanced and achieved stunning objectives at an audacious pace, was conducted in daylight with gathering consensus from the American public – Target Moon – and the race was joined on all levels. Yet, in January 1967, a catastrophic fire in the flagship Apollo capsule claimed the lives of three heralded, highly trained astronauts. Technical warrants, acute human risk considerations signaled a stand down.

The hiatus, on balanced, was remarkably brief. Space program ‘coverage’ had been apportioned at National Geographic Magazine to differing staff members in previous sequences. During this interim, a determination to a more coherent and systematic strategy for the future was expressed. As a new hire, Jon Schneeberger was elected to try to satisfy that role photographically.

National Geographic was one of a five member “Still Photographic Pool” that included four news organizations and NASA itself. Each offered contributions in infrastructure and personnel. All benefited in time sensitive products, as the overwhelming majority of launch coverage resulted from this union. Schneeberger oversaw, to some extent supervised, his magazines participation in the pool in addition to organizing collateral activity at Kennedy. Together with responsibilities for accessing and acquiring mission photography at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, he supported company publishing efforts from Apollo 7 through Apollo 17.

His tasks were analogous through the term of Skylab. A comprehensive magazine presentation on the three-crew odyssey to the proto space station was offered in 1972. Following Skylab, Schneeberger was among the very few journalists accepted by the Soviet Union to have access to Star City and the Cosmonaut training facilities. An article on Apollo-Soyuz resulted. His launch attendance record remained complete – Apollo 7 through four Skylab lift-offs and Apollo-Soyuz.

During the half-dozen year hiatus until the inaugural launch of the space shuttle, Schneeberger assembled articles on other aspects of space activity – unmanned planetary exploration, and satellite sensing and monitoring. He also pursued his other abiding topical objective at the magazine, primitive peoples, an interest that some thought whimsical.

The remainder of the 70s, he tasked himself the objective of photographing intermittently the developments and milestones in the assembly of the orbiter and its unique unprecedented, tandem launch system. Considerable company resources were dedicated to creating and refining foolproof sound and light-activated remote camera systems, against the requirement for launch photography when shuttle began to fly. When shuttle did fly, it was preceded by a magazine cover story, photographed by Schneeberger. Another issue, “The Flight of Columbia” in the same year, 1981, chronicled the first mission. The article was ‘signed’ by the crew, photographed by Schneeberger, with an additional cover picture of Columbia’s launch.

A four member technical and photographic team continued to install batteries of remote cameras at more challenging locations adjacent to the launch complex into the mid-80s.

One more acute interruption – the tragic loss of Challenger – caused another stand down. Schneeberger resumed attendance at 1988 at the launch of space shuttle Discovery’s STS-26 mission, the Return to Flight. From that time forward remote launch photography was conducted only on a flight specific basis to support articles on individual missions. A handful of such projects were photographed or assembled by Schneeberger for the magazine. He accepted early retirement from the institution in 1995, has since contributed to Discovery television productions on space subjects, has researched and edited books on the same subject and consults as occasion permits.