Bill Taub; photographer recorded NASA history

Bill Taub had his blood tested before photographing the Apollo 11 crew at the Launch Site Medical Operations Laboratory. Bill Taub had his blood tested before photographing the Apollo 11 crew at the Launch Site Medical Operations Laboratory. (Nasa)
By Emma Brown
Washington Post / March 20, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Bill Taub, a self-taught NASA photographer whose pictures recorded the country’s major aeronautics and space-flight events from 1958 to 1975, including the missions that sent the first astronauts into orbit and onto the moon, died Feb. 20 at Doctors Community Hospital in Lanham, Md.

Mr. Taub had pneumonia and multiple organ failure. He was 86.

Though he was rarely credited by name, Mr. Taub took nearly every official picture of the astronauts who led the nation’s early journeys into space and played a central role in shaping public perception of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s work. He was often the only photographer with access to training sessions and closed engineering meetings during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, and his images showed the anxiety of those who orchestrated the space program’s first-ever feats.

“We were really pioneering in so many ways; even the training exercises, there was tension — and I think Bill captured that,’’ astronaut Alan Shepard, whose 1961 Mercury flight made him the first American in space, said in a NASA video about Mr. Taub.

Charged with documenting NASA’s work, Mr. Taub was often one of the last people to see the astronauts before liftoff, earning the nickname “Two More Taub’’ for his insistence on snapping just a couple more shots.

His photographs appeared in Life, Look, and National Geographic magazines, among others. They captured such iconic moments in American history as John Glenn entering the Friendship 7 capsule that carried him into orbit in 1962 and such tragedy as the aftermath of the 1967 Apollo 1 accident, in which three astronauts were killed during a training exercise.

William Paul Taub was born in Lorain, Ohio. He grew up during the golden age of railroads and taught himself about photography while taking pictures of steam engines as a boy.

When Mr. Taub was a teenager, his brother Fred landed a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency that would become NASA. Fred’s supervisors liked him well enough that they offered to hire Mr. Taub as well. He was 17 years old and working as a clerk for Lake Terminal Railroad when he received a telegram inviting him to become a builder of aircraft models at the committee’s Langley Field in Hampton, Va.

Not long after he arrived, he succeeded in photographing, with his own nimble Leica camera, the spark of an engine inside a cylinder — a feat that the committee’s official photographers, armed with the wrong equipment, had been unable to accomplish. The success earned Mr. Taub the attention of Langley officials and a new job as a photographer.

While he traveled, he had the time to work on detailing tiny trains for a model railroad he was building in his Bowie, Md., home, and he met celebrities from around the world. He diligently recorded their names — including Muhammad Ali, Bob Hope, Indira Gandhi, Frank Sinatra, and Queen Elizabeth — in a spiral notebook reserved for that purpose.

“He had stories about every one of them,’’ Mr. Taub’s daughter, Myra Keeler of Elkridge, Md., said in an interview last week. He got along particularly well with Sinatra because of a shared interest in model trains, she said.

In addition to his daughter and brother Fred, of Mitchellville, Md., he leaves his wife of 63 years, Nadine (Ayers) of Bowie, Md., and another brother, Don, of Huntington Beach, Calif.