Window seat for the moon landing

kward1@herald-leader.comJuly 20, 2009 

During the summer of 1969, Guy Mendes was a 20-year-old University of Kentucky student who had landed an internship at Newsweek.

It put him in the perfect spot to snag a little piece of American history — one of the first printed photographs of American astronauts walking on the moon.

Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, and it got Mendes, a Lexington photographer and writer who worked as a director and producer for Kentucky Educational Television, thinking about the little black-and-white photo and how it came to be tacked on the wall above the desk in his Lexington studio.

Mendes was based in Houston for the summer of '69 and had already covered Muhammad Ali's draft-evasion trial and interviewed the president of Gulf Oil for Newsweek.

His moon-landing assignment was a little different, though.

"My role was to be ready to go to this window in the Houston space center where they handed out ... the first pictures of the moon" to the major media outlets, he said.

Then, in those pre-Internet days, he was to hop a flight to New York and deliver the photos to Newsweek's headquarters on Madison Avenue in time for them to make it into the magazine's next issue.

For several days, Mendes said, he waited at the space station in a press area with "hundreds of journalists from all across the world."

"In a way, it was just another job, waiting for the film," he said. "Crucial, but anyone could have done it."

When the envelope was finally placed in his hands, Mendes said he sat down and looked inside.

"There were maybe eight or nine pictures," he said. "One was a duplicate."

So he slipped it out as a souvenir.

"I didn't think too much about it," he said. "I probably should've given it back, but you know, it was an extra."

He flew to New York — first class, as he recalls — checked into the Waldorf Astoria, courtesy of Newsweek, and made the delivery of the prized photographs that the magazine was waiting for.

In 1974, when Mendes got his first solo photography exhibit, he threw in his saved moon-landing shot as a joke, with a caption that said something like "My summer vacation," he says.

To make it fit the matte he was using, he cut the 8-by-10 image down to about 3 inches by 5 inches.

Looking back, "I wish I hadn't," he said. "It was something someone young and stupid might do."

The political climate and Mendes' feelings about the war in Vietnam also probably played into what he now describes as his "rash" crop job.

"We were angry with the government," he said. "It was kind of an offhand comment."

A similar but larger image in color on the NASA Web site is captioned "Aldrin stands beside LM strut and probe," suggesting that a leg of the lunar module is what Mendes cut from his photo all those years ago.

"Talk about irreverence," he said.

But the picture holds significance for him now.

He thinks about the Apollo missions and their images of Earth as a blue marble suspended in space and "what it says to us about the finite nature of our planet."

"It was these pictures that really brought the news home," he said, staring down at the photograph. "These were the proof. And I still have some of the proof."

Reach Karla Ward at (859) 231-3314 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3314.

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