The camera that went on the Moon

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The camera that went on the Moon

In the summer of 1962, Walter Schirra, who would soon become America’s third man to orbit the Earth, walked into a Houston photo supply shop looking for a camera he could take into space.

He came out with a Hasselblad 500C, a high-end Swedish import that had been recommended to him by photographers from Life and National Geographic.

“He was sort of an amateur photographer,” Jennifer Levasseur, a curator in charge of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s astronaut cameras, says of Schirra.

“Somewhere along the line, the decision was made that he could select what camera was flown on his flight.”

Schirra’s camera was a much more sophisticated, and pricey, choice than the simple Ansco Autoset that John Glenn bought for $40 (cca $340 in today’s money) at a drug store in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Glenn used his chosen camera to take pictures from orbit on Friendship 7 in February 1962.

The Hasselblad retailed for about $500 (cca $4.300 in today’s money) and used a much larger negative than Glenn’s 35mm camera.

It also sported interchangeable, Carl Zeiss lenses and removable film magazines.

When NASA got a look at Schirra’s Hasselblad, they liked what they saw.

The space agency purchased at least one more.

Engineers tore into the off-the-shelf consumer model to make it space-worthy.

They stripped it down to save weight and painted it dull black to reduce reflections.

They also had to “astronaut-proof it,” says Cole Rise, a photographer and filmmaker who builds custom reproductions of the Hasselblad space cameras.

In a 1998 NASA interview, Schirra acknowledged that his six orbits in October 1962didn’t leave much time for photography, but that on the next flight the following spring, with 22 orbits, astronaut Gordon Cooper “got some absolutely gorgeous pictures,”said Schirra.

Hasselblad’s Chris Cooze said that until then, the space agency was so focused on the technical side of spaceflight that photography was something of an afterthought.

It was in 1965, when NASA released stunning photos of Ed White’s spacewalk on Gemini 4, that Hasselblad “put two and two together” and realized the pictures were taken with one of their cameras.

“Then they got in touch with NASA to see if there was anything that we could cooperate on,” Cooze says.

It was a relationship that would result in one of the singularly iconic photos of the 20th century, “Earthrise” taken by astronaut Bill Anders from the command module of Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve, 1968, and ultimately put a dozen Hasselblads on the moon’s surface.

Earthrise – taken by astronaut Bill Anders from the command module of Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve, 1968

By the time of Apollo, Hasselblad and NASA were working hand-in-hand to produce the 500EL, suited for long-duration flight and the vagaries of the lunar environment.

The manufacturer built a high-capacity film holder, while Eastman Kodak invented a thinner film emulsion, a combination that resulted in getting hundreds of shots out of a single magazine.

For the 500EL “Lunar Surface Data Camera,” a motorized film advance was added, as was something called a Réseau plate, a piece of glass placed near the film plane that imprinted cross marks on the negatives.

The crosses can be seen on many of the moon photos.

Apollo Image Atlas – AS11-40-5903

They allowed for correcting film distortion and helped in judging sizes and distances of objects, “because on the moon, there’s no recognizable landmarks, there’s no telephone poles or houses in the distance,” says Rise.

The shutter button and other controls were made larger for ease of operation wearing the thick protective gloves of the moon suit, and astronauts were given suggested exposure settings for a variety of scenarios.

Among other modifications, a special lubricant was produced that could withstand the huge temperature swings of the lunar surface.

Like the earliest Hasselblad carried on the final Mercury flights, the Data Camera lacked a conventional viewfinder.

Instead, astronauts went through training on Earth to learn how to aim the camera by feel from chest-level, where it was attached to the spacesuit.

“They needed to know that the position of the camera … along their body was going to produce a certain king of image,” Levasseur says.

While the landings produced some stunning images, it’s not surprising that without a viewfinder, some of them were poorly framed.

“There are about 18,000 or so images taken during the Apollo program and there are plenty that aren’t any good.”

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module landed with two cameras, but only one went outside, carried by Neil Armstrong.

That explains why nearly every photograph of an astronaut on the surface during that first landing are of Armstrong crewmate Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.

Armstrong had the only camera for nearly the entire two-and-a-half hours the two walked around the Sea of Tranquility.

An official NASA document describes how the space agency’s public affairs department, scrambling to satisfy the world’s media for photographs of the historic moonwalk, suddenly discovered an embarrassing oversight.

“They started looking for the best shot of Armstrong,” according to a transcript included in the Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Journal. “Soon they were looking for any shot of Armstrong.”

Aldrin, who was busy setting up lunar experiments, did briefly take over the camera and remarkably, snapped only a single photo of Armstrong.

The camera “just wasn’t part of what his job was at the time”.

There were “no directions to take photographs of each other”, which I find really interesting.

You’re going to travel all the way to the moon, and nobody ever thought, “maybe we should take pictures of people”.

On later missions that involved longer romps on the surface, there was more time for photography, and each astronaut carried his own camera.

Even so, NASA had such difficulty telling one identically suited astronaut from another that a red stripe was added to the commander’s suit at the arms, legs and helmet to help distinguish the pair.

In total, thousands of pictures came back from the surface in six missions — most taken by the Hasselblads, but some with other specialized cameras.


Official and original NASA Apollo 11 Lunar Photography document

NASA was nervous about having enough fuel to get off the moon and back to the orbiting command module, as a result, they imposed strict weight-limits on what the astronauts could take home.

Moon rocks, it turns out, are more valuable than cameras, so, the astronauts were instructed to pack the exposed film but leave behind the Hasselblads.

And, that’s where they remain today, untouched, at the six Apollo landing sites.

Today consumer cameras are still used in the International Space Station, although more modern, and with higher quality, NASA still prefer to use more common Nikon or Sony cameras.

The first commercial 4k video footage was taken in 2016 on the ISS with a Sony A7ii, a full frame mirrorless camera available for everyone on the market.

Nikon seems to be the favorite choice for photos and, this might surprise someone, even iPhones and HTC Nexus one phones have been used on the ISS for multiple purposes, like video, or photos, or even twitter!

In 2016, in a Space Station Live stream, American astronaut Jeff Williams was asked what camera they use and went into some detail on the equipment they use on the ISS.

Another heavily used camera in space today is the GoPro.

Used by different astronaut, is the most “easy to use” camera, and lots of videos and pictures you see today are created using this little action cam.

And about the GoPro, on a spacewalk outside the ISS flight engineer Drew Feustel found himself stumped by a GoPro camera complaining about the lack of a memory card.

You can see the video on the above one.

Feustel and his crewmate Ricky Arnold from the ISS Expedition 55 embarked on a scheduled spacewalk on the 16th of May 2016, both of them are experienced astronauts and have stared down the vastness of empty space before.

They were working on some maintenance tasks of the station’s external cooling system, and in-between the jobs Feustel was going to take some pictures with a seriously space-armoured GoPro camera.

Except it was not to be, as you saw.

Anyway, the full length of the spacewalk can be found here, and I’ll leave the link in the description.

And although the Moon is now littered with up to 12 Hasselblad cameras along with the footprints of the brave men who made history the 20th of July 1969, we have to thanks Hasselblad, that has given us those amazing historical pictures of our moon, and the trust NASA puts every day into off-the-shelves consumer cameras such as Nikon, or Sony, to continue giving us those amazing photos of our home planet.