On 19th November 1969, Apollo 12's Lunar Module Intrepid landed on the Moon in an area known as the Ocean of Storms. It was a precise touchdown, within walking distance of a previous unmanned probe called Surveyor 3. The Apollo 12 crew have for many years been my favourite group of astronauts, particularly Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean, who has since spent his years painting Lunar landscapes and reinterpreting the incredible photography shot on an alien world.
As a student, one of my favourite pastimes in the school library was to scrutinise old copies of National Geographic. As most people my age harboured desires to become pilots or astronauts, the issues which continually fascinated me were the lavish pictorials of NASA missions. Several National Geographic volumes pictured trios of astronauts wearing oppressive goldfish-bowl helmets and heavily padded white spacesuits, often posed next to scale models of their oddly-shaped spacecraft. Photographed in saturated Kodachrome, these were the men who had journeyed to the Moon twenty years earlier. The experiences of these pioneers, vividly evidenced in the universal language of the still image, has ensured that space exploration remains a inspiration for multiple generations.
The pinnacle of manned space exploration to date is Apollo; NASA’s audacious and ambitious programme to put a man on the Moon and bring him safely back to Earth before 1970. The $25.4 billion project sent 27 humans to the Earth's natural satellite, 12 of which would walk upon its powdery surface. It was a herculean success; even the aborted Apollo 13 mission was a triumph against adversity, saving the crew after a near-fatal on-board explosion in deep space.
But time moves on, memories fade and poorly informed conspiracy theories attempt to subvert the fact mankind has walked on unearthly soil. Since 1972 the Moon remains untouched by human hand whilst numerous remote surveyors and satellites continue to chart its surface, occasionally capturing images of the manned landing sites which will remain unchanged for thousands of years. At the peak of the Apollo project, it seemed a new era of manned exploration was beginning; in hindsight it now stands alone as a single, extraordinary chapter which remains unchallenged after forty five years.
With missions accomplished and journeys long since complete, it is Apollo's photography which remains: crisp 70mm square-framed snapshots from an alien world, detailing impossibly vivid mountain ranges against the inky-black vacuum of infinity. Evoking more history than any other artefact and as potent as any first hand testimony, Apollo's visual record on film continues to resonate and relive mankind's greatest adventure.
More than 32,000 still images were shot during Apollo. Captured on film is a viewpoint of the Moon as the astronauts saw it; from the deepness of space to Lunar orbit and finally trudging in the dust on its surface, the Moon is exhaustively catalogued with scientific precision. The detail in the record is staggering, providing innate clarity of a unique human experience.
One of the first, and finest distributors of Apollo photography came via National Geographic Magazine. The December 1969 issue features one of the most famous photographs of all time; a portrait of Buzz Aldrin stood at the Sea of Tranquillity on 20th July 1969.
Shot by Neil Armstrong, the original image is somewhat skewed and ever so slightly crops off the top of Aldrin’s backpack. This in itself is an example of how the photographs became aesthetically re-framed, or doctored as the Apollo sceptics would have the world believe. Indeed, the Apollo images are no more doctored in National Geographic than any other photographs within its pages; cropping, regrading, doging and burning are all standard processes within printing and the Apollo images are no exception to the process.
The hardware used to capture these images consisted of the finest handheld systems available at the time. Hasselblad cameras had been used since the Mercury programme in Earth orbit, providing dramatic images of extravehicular activity (EVAs) for the subsequent Gemini missions and detailed pictures of the Earth’s surface. For Apollo, specially modified Hasselblad 500ELs were developed with Zeiss Planar f\2.8 lenses in 80mm and telephoto. Lunar temperatures in excess of of 120 degrees Celsius would instantly vaporize lubricants normally found in camera mechanisms, so those were eliminated, as was any possibility of friction or ignition when working in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of the Apollo capsule. The units also had a special coating to reduce temperature variations between lunar light and shade, similar in practice to the light-reflective suits worn for EVA.
Though markedly refined and meticulously modified, the functionality of the camera remained simple. A large trigger button on the front of the system fired the shutter, with a Varta battery-powered auto winder advancing the film. Focus was determined not through a viewfinder but by distance measurement only, as the cameras were mounted on the chests of the astronauts. Guestimation of framing came from hours of training and simulation on Earth. Needless to say, by the time the Apollo astronauts set foot on the Moon, they were highly specialised photographers who knew their cameras well.
The film stock, provided by Kodak, was also of the finest standard available in the late Sixties and was specially produced on a thin base within enlarged magazines, allowing up to 160 Ektachrome pictures or 200 Panatomic-X shots in 70mm medium format. Panatomic-X, now discontinued due to it relatively high production costs, was the finest grain panchromatic film available at the time, if not of all time. Whilst the colour imagery brought back from the Moon is beautiful in itself, the Panatomic-X provides incredible shadow detail and a plethora of grey tones. Exposure was determined through an advanced Lunar version of the Sunny 16 rule: Using Panatomic-X with a IE of 80, aperture was generally f\5.6 for shadow and f\11 for sunlight, providing a superb depth of field. As such, there was also a generous margin for error with focus.
One of the most printed images of all time was shot from Apollo 17 by Jack Schmidt. Photographed on 7th December 1972, it pictures a fully illuminated Earth in its entirety and was aptly named The Blue Marble by the crew. Due to the orientation of the space vehicle, The Blue Marble pictured the South Pole at the top of the image. As with the majority of Apollo images, the photograph is reorientated for press and shows the North Pole at the top of the picture. It is an indelible image which captures all of human nature, humanity and history, in a single snapshot. It is unsurprising that of all the photographs ever taken, it is The Blue Marble which is used time and time again by enviromentalists to showcase the fragility of our world. Whilst millions were awaiting Apollo’s final Moon landing, the crew were looking back on the home they'd departed with a view that only a few dozen humans had ever experienced.
The Blue Marble was shot on Ektachrome transparency film, the standard colour capture medium for the time. Even by the early Seventies, colour negative film was still considered an inferior consumer technology with dubious archival longevity. Colour reversal afforded fine grained clarity, even though its narrow latitude was less forgiving to exposure errors in the harsh contrast environment of space. The highly saturated patina of reversal films such as Ektachrome also contribute to the stylistic richness and vivid colouration of the Apollo images. In my view, it is a quality which digital image capture fails to possess without significant post-grading. Undoubtedly, Kodak's chrome films contribute to the lustre and magnificence of Apollo's magical imagery.
Access the Moon
Recently a vast number of scanned images have been provided for the public via Eric Jones' Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. Edited by Kipp Teague, the high resolution scans are sourced directly from the Apollo camera negatives and slides. Despite the impressive quality previously provided in National Geographic and other high grade publications, those images were often derived from multiple duplicates of the priceless camera rolls. In particular, the colour transparencies were often bleached out with heavy contrast, a consequence of multiple optical reproduction. Online archives such as Great Images in NASA and Project Apollo offer an intriguing example how drastic the quality is between optical film sources; GRIN offers high definition scans from the standard duplicate films, whilst Project Apollo’s recent archival project presents scans from the original Hasselblad magazines - the very stock which was returned from the Moon. The increased shadow detail, depth and colour balance is a breath-taking revelation and tantamount to experiencing forty year old photographs for the first time with astonishing freshness.
One of the finest presentations of Apollo photography in print is Full Moon by Michael Light. Produced in 1999 to tie in with the thirtieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Full Moon is a lavish selection of digitally restored images which are also scanned from the original camera negatives and chromes. Unique to the collection are fully assembled panoramas, compiled from dozens of individual shots to show a complete view of the Moon's terrain. Providing an unprecedented clarity from the original medium format materials, Full Moon presents a breadth and scale on the page which is an astonishing revelation. It is a testament to the quality of the film stocks and cameras used, in addition to the skill of the astronaut photographers who used them.
Buzz Aldrin famously coined his own view of the Lunar surface as "magnificent desolation," an almost monochrome landscape of powder and rock, harshly lit by blazing rays. Preserved in a vacuum, devoid of colour yet rich in texture, the Moon appears to be formed of infinite shades of grey within an impossibly black sky. To our eyes, Moon photography appears surreal and in Earthly terms it is; absent of an atmosphere the distant mountains lack haze which the human mind discerns as distance. Scale is almost impossible to fathom with hundred-mile craters appearing as vivid and crisp as nearby boulders the size of buildings. In short, the Moon presents an unexpected landscape and one which the Earthly eye can scarcely rationalise.
Enemies of Reason
Conspiracy theorists have long held up the extraordinary photography from Apollo as evidence for fakery. Perhaps it is the wholly unreal, unfathomable views which Lunar imagery presents to the mammalian eye which causes such scepticism. Arguments have been raging for decades, but particually in the Nineties, over apparent anomalies in the images. Some include bleaching of crosshairs in the pictures and inconsistant shadows; any film photographer with a basic knowlegde of opitcals and photochemistry will explain that whites bleach out image detail on reprinting, particually on colour transparency, whilst the size of angle on a lens will affect the percieved direction of objects and shadows. On the beach nobody would question such artefacts; on the moon such effects become the perceived evidence for conspiracy.
Conspiracy theorists also argue that the imagery from the Moon is far too well exposed, composed and focused. Unsurprisingly, most of the pictures NASA distributed in the Seventies and Eighties were the very best shots; today the blurry, underexposed and dull rejects are now fully available if one is eager enough to wade through them. Technically, medium format film is capable of gathering incredible amounts of image detail, providing a better contrast range than say 35mm; the level of incident light available upon the reflective surface of the moon is sufficient to fill-in detail on a bright white subject, such as a spacesuit. In short, all of the photography which is now available through Project Apollo, scanned meticulously from the Hasselblad magazines, consistently exhibits the normal anomalies expected from a shoot with that combination of lens, camera and film stock. Lens flares, over exposures, poor focus and bad framing are all evident in these publically accessible collections.
It is not a case of believing, for science bases truths on evidencing and continued research. Conspiracy theories surrounding the Moon continue to be developed and disproved; NASA’s body of evidence and stated fact has not changed, dodged, excused nor deviated from its original testimony since 1969. Do not accept my words as fact, and more importantly don't let amateurs looking for patterns of fraud skew the legitimacy of the science behind Apollo's photography. Simply view them for yourself, for free, and enjoy snapshots from another world.
Humans stood on the Moon several times. Apollo astronauts brought back hundreds of geological samples. Apollo 12 retrieved parts from the Surveyor 3. Later missions drove the most expensive car along the edges of a huge craters. Yet, perhaps the most important achievement from that time was the hundreds of clicks of a Hasselblad shutter and the thousands of images registered onto film. From thousands of photographs are a few dozen masterpeices to enjoy and share. Never has history been so meticulously, scientifically and artisticually recorded than through Apollo.
There will always be some who find the sensational concept of conspiracy more interesting than a detailed body of evidenced scientific research. In light of the landings on the Moon, to suffer a conspiracy over recorded history highlights a real poverty of logic and learning. Often, the ill-read will passionately affirm that the Moon landings we fabricated, yet the same theorists can't describe the technology nor name the leading players involved in the programme they so vehemently criticise. Sceptics of science alter the facts to fit the views instead of changing their views to follow the facts. Now in his eighties, Alan Bean's personal and human triumph is still contested, but he lets the imagery of his painting evoke that time and rebut that argument. His achievement needs no defence in the face of irrationalism:
"I went to the Moon and back - and everyone that's a scientist knows it. Now if you want to not believe it, it's ok: It's a better story, it just happens to be a lie! ...You can have any opinion you want, that's what's wonderful about this country. You can believe anything you want, and it's OK with me, for sure."
Alan Bean, interviewed by Bart Sibrel in Astonauts Gone Wild (2004).
A Visual Legacy
The Apollo photography originated as a scientific record of the Moon's surface and is still used to this day. But now it has another purpose; historical evidencing. Several of the astronauts now regret not taking as many photographs of each other, as opposed to rocks and landscapes. One of these is Bean, who specifically took a self-timer to setup the first two-shot portrait on the Moon. The intention was to return to Earth and not mention the snapshot, leaving the laboratory and analysts shocked as to how it was achieved. Regretfully, such a wonderful portrait didn't occur, as Bean misplaced his timer. Now he spends his retirement evoking his Lunar adventure in oils, using original Apollo tools to texture the images remembered from a distant landscape. For Bean, art is his lasting testimony of that unique experience of human endeavour.
It is unlikely the current generation will be able to experience the sights which Apollo provided in such awesome clarity. It is a guesture of cruelty to deprive generations of a confidence in humanity; to strip away the great truth that mankind is capable of of accomplishing the wonderful. We live in an age where humans continue to persecute, torture and kill one another, yet we also live in an age where we have walked on the Moon. Why deprive young people of such an inspirational, enlightening and peaceful human achievement?
The Apollo missions are a marker in mankind's history. A triumph of science and technology. The photography from that time is not only a record, but a window onto another world which continues to enthral and astound. It is also the lasting evidence which anybody can inspect and scrutise in pinsharp detail. Photography captures moments and feelings, it freezes time and hones inperceptiable details. The Apollo imagery does that and more, for it encapsulates unimagiable accomplishment, bearing a visceral testimony and recording the industrious triumph of Homo sapiens.
Twelve Hasselblad cameras remain on the Moon, abandoned with their spent lenses gazing into the unfiltered sunlight. Designed to burn unfathomable images onto light-sensitive film, their job is complete with shutters that have remained closed for nearly half a century. Yet the imagery since returned to Earth remains uneclipsed and indelible: Magnificent portraits of adventure and landscapes of desolation, they illustrate adversity, human tenacity and achievement. Apollo's photography is uniquely inspiring and literally out of this world.
On 13th November 2014 the first Hasselblad and Ziess lens used in space was sold at auction for $275,000. The lens and body was first flown on Mercury 8 by Wally Schirra with a magazine first flown on Mercury 9 by Gordon Cooper. For more details see: https://rrauction.creatavist.com/rrauction-the-first-hasselblad-in-space
Sources & Further Reading
Chaikin, A. (1993) A Man on the Moon. Penguin.
The Focal Encyclopaedia of Photography Vol 1 & Vol 2. Focal.
Great Images In NASA: http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/
Light, M. (1999) Full Moon. Alfred A. Knopf.
National Geographic V.136 No.6, V.140 No.1, V141 No.3, V.144 No.3.
Project Apollo Archive: http://www.apolloarchive.com
Instructing film photography, developing and printing in the darkroom. © Samuel Payne 2016