“One small step for a man . . . one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong spoke these immortal words when stepping from the Lunar Module Eagle onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. Just over eight years after President John F. Kennedy set a national goal for putting an American on the moon, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins brought that goal to fruition. While Armstrong and Aldrin engaged in a roughly two and a half hour EVA in the Sea of Tranquility, Michael Collins piloted the Command Module Columbia. Together the three astronauts made history.
Special Collections has an extensive collection of Michael Collins’s personal papers and artifacts from his impressive and lengthy career as an astronaut in Projects Gemini and Apollo, director of the National Air and Space Museum, and published author, just to name a few. As can be imagined, the collection contains some pretty neat items, many of which give insight into one of the most exciting decades of space travel in the twentieth century.
Perhaps one of my favorite elements of the collection is a partial set of black and white and color photographic prints made from the film shot during the Apollo 11 Mission. Many of these images are so iconic they have become almost ubiquitous in popular memory. There are, however, also a great many that are not as recognizable but just as compelling. The photographs are stunning in their beauty, and it is easy to understand how monumental their impact must have been after their initial release. Although the images are fascinating themselves, the story behind the photographs is interesting as well.
Astrophotography was certainly not new by the time Apollo 11 launched in 1969. Indeed, people had been pointing their lenses skyward since the nineteenth century. Photos taken from space were not new either. Surprisingly, though, when NASA launched Project Mercury in 1959 with the primary goal of placing an American in space, photographing the mission from the astronauts’ perspective in spacecraft was not NASA’s main concern. Cameras were taken on board to be sure (John Glenn took an Ansco Autoset with him on the Friendship 7), but photography was not a major part of the missions. Things changed, however, with the last two one-man Mercury missions of 1962 and 1963. Walter Schirra took a Hasselblad 500c, which he slightly modified to ensure better operation in space, with him during the Mercury-Atlas 8 Mission. The resulting images were very good, and NASA teamed with Hasselblad to create specially modified cameras for spaceflight.
Fast-forward a few years to July 1969 and the Apollo 11 Mission. Among the various pieces of equipment taken aboard ship for the mission were several cameras specially modified for optimal performance in space and among these were four Hasselblads one Hasselblad Electric Camera carried in the Command Module, two Hasselblad Lunar Surface Superwide-Angle Cameras carried in the Lunar Module, and one Hasselblad EL Data Camera taken to the lunar surface.
The Hasselblad images from the landing almost seem effortless in their beauty, but what they do not show is how much consideration was taken in designing and creating cameras for the mission. Operating a camera in the vacuum of space is pretty different from operating one on earth. The camera taken to the surface needed to work well in extreme temperatures. Traditional lubricants in the camera body had to be removed and replaced with those that would operate in a vacuum without hampering the camera’s functions. The body also had to be stripped down to reduce weight. The act of actually snapping a picture was also different with this camera. It was fixed to a handle with a button that triggered an exposure when pressed, and it was mounted at chest level on the astronauts’ suits (mostly Armstrong’s as he took the majority of the images on the lunar surface). As can be imagined, the position of the camera presented its own challenges for framing shots. That particular camera was also fitted with a special glass apparatus for winding film called a Reseau plate. Unlike traditional metal winders, the glass plate was designed to prevent sparking via static electricity when the film was wound in the film magazine. Also, if you look closely at the exposures made on the lunar surface, you will see small cross markings. These markings were located on the Reseau plate itself and appear on every image made with the lunar 500EL. The markings on the prints were used for measurement and analysis purposes back on Earth. So when it was all said and done, lunar photography was a little more complicated than point and click.
After the film was shot and safely secured in its removable magazines and the astronauts were ready to climb back into the Eagle and dock with the Columbia, there was something that was not loaded back into the module: the camera. Although it may seem shocking that such a fine piece of carefully crafted photographic technology was just left behind, the sacrifice was necessary so that as many lunar samples as possible could be taken back to earth. This was a practice continued throughout the subsequent manned lunar missions meaning that there actually quite a few abandoned Hasselblads, their shutters indefinitely silenced, sitting on the moon to this day. It almost gives a whole new meaning to the concept of the disposable camera.
So, if you want an opportunity to view some of the extraordinary results of the first camera on the moon, as well as those taken by the other Apollo 11 Hasselblads, I encourage you to come view the Apollo 11 photographic prints in the Michael Collins Papers (Ms1989-029) here at Special Collections. They truly embody the beauty and wonder of space that has captivated humankind for centuries and seeing them in person is a very special experience indeed.