Klaus Wilckens, who spent decades documenting the space program through photographs, has died. He was 84.
Wilckens was born in Germany in 1938 on the eve of World War II. When he was 14, his family moved to Brevard County and Wilckens entered Cocoa High School.
Wilckens knew he wanted to be a photographer very early in his life and while still in school went to work at the Fox Studio in Cocoa. 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 in the Minute Man Missile program as a photo coordinator.
In 1963, Technicolor Corporation won the contract to provide photographic service to NASA. Wilckens job continued to be documenting everything from construction of facilities, to stacking rockets, 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. Wilckens said knowing that a photograph labeled "NASA Photo" was his was enough.
Wilckens was always looking for new visual ways to tell the story and then preserve it for posterity. He believed that he needed to produce a picture that captured the attention of the public and then led them to read the words that helped them learn even more.
It was not enough for Wilckens 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. It also allowed him to study with many of the famous photographers of the day, and learn about other fields ranging from industrial, to advertising and theater.
Although much of his photography involved rockets, facilities and launches, he always had his eyes open for the human side of space exploration. He was particularly proud of the pictures he made of employees watching an Apollo or Space Shuttle lift off, often with tears of pride running down their cheeks.
Four U,S, presidents visited KSC during his watch and he helped document them all for history books along with hundreds of international dignitaries and royalty.
Wilckens said 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.
Throughout his career, he took an interest in the wildlife on the space center and surrounding wildlife refuge. This included placing a Nikon 250 exposure camera on the branches of a tall tree housing an eagle’s nest to remotely document an American bald eagle family from October to May over a period of ten years. It turned out bald eagles are shy and he had to rethink the project when the eagles ripped out the wiring during the first year. The next nine years were more successful and the resulting pictures were very useful to the wildlife community.
Wilckens had many pictures he was proud of but considered his photo of the Enterprise orbiter mounted on the 747 during landing tests at Edward’s Air Force Base, California, with three astronaut T-38 chase plane aligned off of each wing one of his best.
Another of his favorite pictures was of astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen in their cockpit seats for the maiden flight of Columbia. After the flight he photographed them together with then Vice President George Bush in the cockpit.
Throughout his retirement Wilckens was emotional when he talked about Challenger. He sometimes related, “On the early morning of January 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. 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.”
“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 of having his photograph of the deployment of the drag chute during a shuttle landing at KSC selected for a three-dollar stamp by the United States Post Office.
"It was a 38-year, wonderful ride," Wilckens said of his career with NASA.
Harris is the former director of public affairs at the Kennedy Space Center.
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Klaus Wilckens, who spent decades document space on film, has died at 84