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The LIFE website this week unveiled a
photo retrospective of Project Mercury, America's first human spaceflight program. If you look at the picture captions, you'll notice one name on most of them: Ralph Morse. There's a good reason for that.

Ralph Morse was a staffer at LIFE (and later TIME) when he was assigned to cover a press conference in Washington in 1959. That event was the announcement of the Project Mercury astronauts. Sensing the long term importance of the announcement, Morse contacted his editor and told him that there would be a lot of public interest in these men. He suggested that the magazine assign someone permanently to NASA, which was then less than a year old. Morse got the job.

It was a good choice; Morse had already been with LIFE for over a decade, bringing back some of the most well known pictures in their archives. NASA was a fledgling agency, and Morse had gotten himself in on the ground floor of what would become the Space Race.

Over the next couple of decades, Morse would become an insider at NASA. He got exclusive access, and was even allowed to place his cameras in restricted areas his competition at NEWSWEEK couldn't even dream of. Along the way, he produced some of the most iconic images of the various NASA projects.

It all started at that press conference, where an idiot reporter (some things never change) asked the astronauts which of them expected "to come back alive." Morse grabbed this shot of the astronauts showing their mettle:

Some of his shots were very well known...

...while others weren't:

All of them, though, came from
the camera of an inventive genius whose enthusiasm for his job knew no bounds. Were it not for his eye, his ingenuity, and his nose for news, we wouldn't have this great visual record of our nation's greatest achievements. George Hunt, at one time LIFE's Managing Editor, said “if LIFE could afford only one photographer, it would have to be Ralph Morse.”

Ralph is now 92, but unfortunately for us gave up photography some years ago.

-=[ Grant ]=-
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