Getting the light right with space photography
Photography in space had a slow start. The first American to orbit the earth was John Glenn, the addition of a 35mm camera to his equipment on board Friendship 7 in February 1962 was according to NASA’s official history website “an afterthought”
“An Ansco Autoset 35mm Minolta was bought at a drugstore and hastily modified so the astronaut could use it more easily in a pressure suit.” The website goes on to tell us.
Little it seems was expected of these early attempts at photographs in space.
At the height of Cold war tensions there were also serious concerns that taking pictures above sovereign nations could cause diplomatic tensions, or even lead to conflict.
During these years when man was taking the first few tentative steps into space the work of photographic surveillance was carried out by the high altitude U-2 planes flying at supersonic speeds and not satellites as it is today.
Photographs of a country from above was seen as a hostile act as US U2 pilot Gary Powers found out when he was shot down over Soviet Russia in May 1960 collecting just such photographic material.
Kodak was commissioned by NASA to develop thin films with special emulsions; this was to minimize the fiddly process of loading medium format magazines a task that would have been impossible with space suit gloves on.
A typical magazine would hold 160 colour and 200 black and white exposures. The film was 70mm wide and was perforated.
A glass plate with accurate cross markings would record small black crosses on every exposure, this helped later to allow height and distance measurements to be taken from every exposure.
Apollo 8 even carried an unheard of 16,000 ASA super light sensitive film, I can remember turning somersaults when 1600 and 3200 ASA films was supplied to us in the late eighties!
This opened up low light photography possibilities like night sports events under lights in ways that revolutionized what could be achieved without a flash unit.
By the Time Neil and Buzz climbed aboard the eagle to make their descent to the lunar surface in July 1969 3 medium format Hasselblad’s were carried by the Apollo 11 crew.
One was left with Michael Collins in the command module. That would surely mean 1 camera for each of the astronauts?
It is somewhat puzzling to realize that there is really no single still picture of the first man to walk on the moon.
The closest is the reflection of Armstrong in Buzz Aldrins visor. A picture shot by Armstrong.
Buzz later reflected on this lack of Armstrong images “My fault, perhaps, but we never simulated this in training”
I was a picture editor for many years, in this position I have heard many explanations as to why a photographer does not have a certain picture, as a photographer I have also given a few furry and detailed outlines as to my lack of images.
I don’t know how I would have reacted to what amounts to” you didn’t ask for it” as an explanation as to why there were no single still photographs of the first man on the moon.
I would have assigned Buzz to the NASA equivalent to covering court stories for a few months for that one!
The camera that took those first photographs remained on the moon at Tranquility base and barring any little green souvenir hunters should still be there.
All three Astronauts have been out this week celebrating the 40th anniversary.
Buzz seems like quite a character. I saw footage of him punching a conspiracy theorist who kept harassing him, whilst I would never condone such behavior it would be hard to take being called a “liar” after the service he has given his country.
I also watched a documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon” Buzz told the story that he stopped on the Lunar Module ladder on his way to the moons surface to use his relief tube, this first he said was “without dispute”.
That would be one small step for Neil and one giant leak for Buzz Aldrin.
However this historic event is interpreted in future generations the still photograph that is always used is of Buzz Aldrin with Neil reflected in his visor.
Public access to all of NASA’s incredible resource of images can be found at http://www.nasaimages.org/
Many thanks to NASA’s history division for much of the technical information
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