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Filmmaker produced NASA documentaries

OBITUARIES / Byron Morgan, 1921 - 2008

March 08, 2008|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Byron Morgan, a documentary filmmaker whose work for NASA in the 1950s and '60s provided enduring images of the early days of the manned space program, has died. He was 87.

Morgan died of pulmonary failure Feb. 13 at a Long Beach hospital, his son John said.

In 1957, Morgan signed on with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, known as NACA, and began producing films to promote the governmental agency's research projects, starting with the X-15 experimental aircraft.

That same year, the Soviet Union sent the Sputnik satellite into orbit and launched what became an international space race.

In 1958, NACA was transformed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the United States set about exploring space.

Morgan transferred to the new agency's public affairs office and, while based in Washington, D.C., made dozens of documentaries, including "The Astronauts: United States Project Mercury," "Flight of Freedom Seven" and "Project Apollo: Manned Flight to the Moon."

The films helped to introduce Alan Shepard, John Glenn and the other Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts to the American public. Both educational and entertaining, the documentaries fascinated the nation and helped pave the way for congressional funding of the expensive space program mandated by President Kennedy's 1961 challenge to put a man on the moon.

In addition to his work as a writer, director and producer, Morgan managed film and video coverage of NASA missions, providing footage of launches to the news media.

He left NASA in 1965 but returned to document the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1975 and the flight of the first space shuttle Columbia in 1981.

He continued to make other documentary films and was a consultant on space-related films, including the 1985 miniseries "Space" based on James Michener's novel.

Born Byron Albert Morgan in Los Angeles on Feb. 3, 1921, he was the son of Hollywood screenwriter Albert Byron Morgan and his wife, Gladys.

A Navy pilot during World War II, Morgan's plane was hit by Japanese fire while on a bombing raid on the Kuril Islands in 1944 and he was forced to land in Siberia. He was held by the Russians for nine months before being released, his son said.

After the war, Morgan earned a bachelor's degree at Loyola University (now Loyola Marymount) in Los Angeles and a master's at UCLA.

In addition to his son John of Los Angeles, Morgan is survived by his second wife, Dell Morgan; seven other children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce: Byron Morgan Jr. of Annapolis, Md., Heather Hackett of Sterling, Va., Laura Capaccio of Staunton, Va., Marya Morgan of Cape May, N.J., Melissa Morgan of Toronto, Patricia Morgan Hall-Tipping of Rowayton, Conn., and Peter Morgan of San Francisco; two stepchildren, Jonathan Chumley of Indianapolis and Mark Chumley of Santa Monica; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Services are scheduled at 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Brendan Catholic Church, 310 S. Van Ness Ave., Los Angeles.

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claire.noland@latimes.com

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