This Virginia man had front-row seat to NASA’s first astronauts who 'boldly went where no man had gone before'

Posted at 6:31 PM, Mar 03, 2023

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Early in life Fred Jones felt anchored down by one dead-end job after another. But the trajectory of his career took off when a pink slip arrived.

“I got laid off from the shipyard. I didn’t want to work there anyway,” the Newport News man said.

At 22, Fred accepted an offer from an employer which was boldly going where no human had gone before.

NASA Photographer Fred Jones
NASA Photographer Fred Jones

“They called me up one day and said we have a job for you. Do you want to come to work? I said ‘Yeah!’”

In 1958, Jones began working for NASA before it was NASA.

“Back then it was NACA. National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics,” Jones said. “Probably a lot of people don’t know that.”

A photographer in the Naval Reserves, Jones found his calling in the photo lab at NASA Langley in Hampton, Virginia.

“You know you see the first space shot. Everyone was gathered around the TV in the photo lab and we saw the first shot. Just amazing. Shoooooo. It took off,” he said.

The bosses recognized that their new employee possessed the right stuff.

“I knew what I had to do to improve my photography,” Jones said.

NASA Photographer Fred Jones
NASA Photographer Fred Jones

Jones rubbed shoulders with NASA’s first rocket men like Gus Grissom and John Glenn.

“It was Liberty Bell 7. We had to photograph them so we did get close,” Jones said. “They were nice guys. They didn’t feel like they were above people.”

Jones was soaring at a time when America was locked in fierce competition to reach the heavens.

“It was very intense,” he recalled.

In the early 60s, Russia was flexing its muscle by dominating the early space race.

“They had the first woman in space,” Jones said. “They were doing things we haven’t even started to do.”

NASA Photographer Fred Jones
NASA Photographer Fred Jones

Not to be outdone NASA set high expectations for its own team dubbed Mercury 7. The young employee went along for the adrenaline-fueled ride.

“What was thrilling was when they asked me if I was interested in shooting recovery pictures,” Jones said. “I said ‘Yes!’ Why not?!’

During NASA’s early flights, Jones never witnesses a launch.

“I was always on a recovery ship. During liftoff,” he said. “That is where we always were. On a destroyer or carrier.”

NASA Photographer Fred Jones
NASA Photographer Fred Jones

The photographer’s job was to capture images of America’s space travelers returning to Earth.

His cameras were attached to Navy helicopters rolled as each astronaut is rescued from the Atlantic.

“We took movies of them picking them up out of the water,” Jones said. “That was something else.”

The 85-year-old man, who now lives in a senior living center, still shutters thinking about missing the critical moment.

“That was kind of nerve-wracking. We tested and tested and tested and tested. We knew pretty much everything was going to work,” Jones said.

NASA Photographer Fred Jones
NASA Photographer Fred Jones

While capturing history his responsibilities required sitting in a front-row seat that was still warm.

“Well, I got in the capsule and was going to take some pictures of the switches that were thrown,” he said. “I still had a flight suit on that is what we wore when we crawled around those capsules.”

During NASA’s crowing achievement in July 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, Jones wasn’t at Langley or waiting on a ship at sea.

“I was laying in bed at three o’clock in the morning or whenever they landed and I said, ‘Alright. Hot Dang. They landed on the moon,” Jones said.

NASA Photographer Fred Jones
NASA Photographer Fred Jones

After four decades, Jones finally powered down his camera for the last time. Snapping the last of countless photos in 1997.

‘I worked on all of them,” Jones said. “No! I wouldn’t even remember how many I’ve taken.”

The married father reflects on his role that spanned Mercury to the Space Shuttle.

“I was very happy to work for NASA,” Jones said. “Really awestruck.”

Fred Jones is a photographer whose career was certainly out of this world.

“They have an archive at NASA Langley that these pictures are being stored at. And they’ll live on forever.”

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