Ralph Marino knew from the beginning the Apollo 11 mission would be, as he called it, "the world's greatest crapshoot."

There would be no rehearsals, no practices.

The mission would be totally based on scientific and mathematic formulas. Marino knows because he was there at the beginning.

July 20 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a mission initiated by President John F. Kennedy years before it was finally realized.

Marino, 81, was a concept artist for Boeing's aerospace division in NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans from 1963 to 1966. And though he left three years before Neil Armstrong would take his "giant leap for mankind," he was well versed in the operation.

"We had security clearance," the Baton Rouge resident recalled. "We had a big tag with a big, red key on it, and we could go where we wanted. You couldn't photograph anything, but you could go around and look at it." 

Marino, a Kenner native, was one of six artists hired for the job he calls a "speck in the universe" of NASA's moon mission.

Marino and his fellow artists were responsible for presenting to the world the image of the Saturn V rocket, which launched Apollo 11 into space. The hand-painted images had to be exact, down to something as seemingly trivial as what a rocket blast looks like in space.

"Nobody knew," Marion said. "You see, the command module had these little rockets, they were all over the place. If they wanted to turn it this or that way, they blasted it with the rocket on the other side to flip it over."

The Apollo 11 mission would reveal that the rocket blast created a bubble, because there was no gravity to draw it downward. But Marino had made an educated guess long before that.

"I did the round bubble with an airbrush," he said. "We made some command decisions."

Marino said he was in the right place at the right time when he landed the job at Michoud. He'd been drawing since he was a child and majored in advertising art at Southwestern Louisiana Institute, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He served in the U.S. Army National Guard for six months after graduation, then focused on developing a portfolio.

"I moved to Baton Rouge for one year and worked for Printing Inc., where a dear friend of mine, Bob Gullic, taught me a lot about production and how to prepare artwork for production," Marino said. "Then the Saturn V program got kicked off in the early ’60s, and Kennedy made the proclamation in 1961 that we were going to put a man on the moon before end of the decade. Well, I had heard that they were going to hire some conception artists."

NASA had contracted several companies to develop different parts of the rocket in the Michoud facility, including the Boeing and Chrysler aerospace programs. Boeing was assigned the first two sections of the massive rocket that would launch Armstrong, Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins to the moon in 1969.

Boeing hired Marino and his fellow artists to create images of the moon mission, from liftoff to space to its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

"Boeing was in charge of building the Saturn V first stage, which was to get it off the ground." Marino said. "The Saturn V ultimately was 364 feet tall, which is longer than a football field. The Saturn I vehicles on the previous missions were orbital. They carried only one or two men. John Glenn was one of them."

To generate enough power to launch a craft to the moon, the rocket would require several stages.

"The stages separated, and once it got high enough and far enough away, the speed was like 17,000 miles an hour," Marino said. "The only thing that came back to earth was the small segment at the top. This part was the command module, which is the part that circled the moon."

One of Marino's tasks was to paint the lunar module's attempt to reconnect with the command module. 

It was all speculation, based on the way things should work if everything went precisely according to plan: if the rockets section successfully separated; if the lunar lander hit its designated spot on the moon; if Collins could orbit the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin gathered rocks and dust on the surface; if the lander exited at the exact moment when the command module would be overhead so they could reconnect.

Here's part of the crapshoot: Collins had no radio contact with either NASA or his fellow astronauts while on the backside of the moon, and the lunar lander had only three minutes of fuel to blast off and reconnect.

"It flips over, and the two modules dock nose-to-nose," Marino said, pointing to the lunar module's nose in his painting. "Then Armstrong and Aldrin crawled through, and the lunar module broke off. The timing had to be just right for it to happen. If they missed, they'd still be out there."

NASA used the artists' paintings for catalogs and presentations to businesses and government entities.

And one of those paintings — the Saturn V blasting off — caused Marino a bit of a problem. 

To make an accurate picture, Marino needed to know what the rocket's exterior would look like. The engineers refused to tell him. 

"They were territorial," Marino said. "They said, 'We're not going to let you guys know until we're ready.' And all I'm trying to do is the painting."

Marino referred to pictures of previous rockets, including the Atlas and the Mercury.

"If you worked there, you realized that these things rotate when they're talking off," he said. "There was a reason for the paint jobs. Each quarter had a black strip, and you had black lines further up. You could tell where the A fin or the B fin or the C fin was in the rotation, and if there was an explosion, they could figure out where the leak was."

So Marino made an educated guess.

"When this painting was released, I caught hell," he said. "That was in 1964. They came down and asked, 'Where'd you get that paint job from?' Well, I did the painting based on the forerunners of this, and it was remarkably accurate. They got off my case after that."

It didn't end there. Engineers also argued with him about how he depicted the launch flames in a painting. 

"This thing had 7.5 million pounds of thrust," Marino said. "That could move several cities. So, I made my flames and my smoke up high, and the engineers moaned."

Engineers insisted water pumped in the launchpad would send the flames outward 100 yards either way.

"But I figured that the smoke and fire would come up the side of the rocket," Marino said. "They kept arguing with me. If you've ever seen an actual launch picture, the smoke came up even higher. So I won that battle."

By 1966, NASA had constructed several rockets and started folding some of the programs at Michoud, including the artists' division.

Marino had met and married his wife Jeanette, a former flight attendant, by that time and began working for the Peter Mayer Agency in New Orleans. The couple moved to Baton Rouge after his retirement, to be near their three children.

And though he considers his part in the NASA moon mission small, he remembers it as exciting. And he respects the chances that were taken.

"As I said, this thing was the world's greatest crapshoot," he said. 

Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com