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Exposing the moon's surface: Equipment that changed space photography

Photographs of the first moon landing were nothing short of artistic masterpieces that redefined imagery with the picture of a footprint

Rahul Saha  |  New Delhi 

The Hasselblad Data Camera was fitted with a glass Reseau plate, which created cross marks on the images and made it possible to calibrate distances and heights enabling size-ratio analyses of objects on the moon. Photo: NASA
The Hasselblad Data Camera was fitted with a glass Reseau plate, which created cross marks on the images and made it possible to calibrate distances and heights enabling size-ratio analyses of objects on the moon. Photo: NASA

Fifty years ago more than 500 million people around the world watched the moon landing and were spellbound by the images brought back to earth from the lunar surface. Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon was a giant leap for space photography. The images clicked by the crew of Apollo 11 produced the first color photograph of our planet from the moon as well as images of the moon's surface that were never seen before. However, at the beginning of the space programme hardly anyone thought of photographs from space as anything more than a branch of industrial photography. There were pictures of the spaceships, and launches, and of astronauts in training, but these were all pictures taken on the ground.

When NASA started sending manned aircraft to space, bringing a camera was an afterthought. Scientists were more concerned about weightlessness that might prevent the astronauts from seeing things, breathing or eating and photography was deemed as a recreational extra. When John Glenn made his maiden journey to the orbit, an Ansco Autoset 35mm camera, manufactured by Minolta, was purchased from a local drug store and hastily modified so the astronaut could use it with ease. The Minolta was loaded with infrared film and used for astronomical images, while Glenn was given a Leica to shoot colour photos of Earth way below him.

Something transpired during the Apollo 8 mission that wasn’t on the flight plan. As the spacecraft emerged from the dark side of the moon, the astronauts witnessed the earth rising above the lunar horizon. They hurried to capture this stunning image and took the first color photograph of the earth from the moon. The image called “Earthrise” forever changed the world’s perspective of the planet we call home.

During Apollo 11, a comprehensive set of camera equipment was carried on board along with the crew. According to NASA, filming the Command Module landing on the surface of the Moon required:

  • Two 16mm Maurer motion picture film cameras
  • A color television camera (orbiting in the Columbia)
  • A B&W TV camera outside of the lunar module to transmit to Earth Neil Armstrong's first steps on the Moon's surface.
  • A special stereoscopic color camera built by Kodak enabled astronauts to photograph extreme close-ups of rocks, dust, and minute features of the moon's surface.
  • Three Hasselblad 500EL with electric motors

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had access to two of the hasselblads. One was termed as (IVA) or Intra Vehicular Camera, a conventional 500EL with a Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.8 lens with minor modifications and was not meant for use on the moon's surface. The other was termed (EVA) or Extra Vehicular Camera. It was heavily modified in order to adjust to the harsh lunar atmosphere.

The outer surface of the 500EL data camera was colored silver to help maintain more uniform internal temperatures in the violent extremes of heat and cold encountered on the lunar surface. Lubricants used in the camera mechanisms had to either be eliminated or replaced because conventional lubricants would melt in the vacuum and could condense on the optical surfaces of the lenses, Reseau plate, and film.

ZEISS designed a Biogon 60mm f5.6 wide-angle lens specifically for the moon landing. The goal was to photograph the moon's surface with excellent edge-to-edge contrast and maximum definition. The EVA or Hasselblad Data Camera was fitted with a glass Reseau plate, which created cross marks on the images during exposure. These distinctive crosshatches made it possible to calibrate distances and heights enabling size-ratio analyses of objects on the moon.

A still from Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick

Dr. Erhard Glatzel, conducted thorough research and created eight lens models, which were used in the Apollo programme. His creations were world-renowned. The ZEISS Planar 50mm f0.7 lens was developed to be used in very dark circumstances. The lens was so powerful that it was later used in 1973 to film scenes lit entirely by candlelight in the movie Barry Lyndon. Stanley Kubrik made history by shooting without artificial light for the first time.

The film used during the Apollo 11 mission was exclusively designed by Kodak. Thirty-three rolls of the same film types as used on the earlier missions were carried on the Apollo 11 mission. A special 70 mm Kodak film was engineered specifically to deal with temperatures as low as -40°C. This film had a custom-made thin polyester base (Estar), with a melting point of 254°C (490°F), and used an Ektachrome emulsion capable of providing adequate results over a wide temperature range.

Neil Armstrong with the Hasselblad 500EL camera. Photo: NASA

Two film magazines for the lunar surface Hasselblad 500EL data camera were carried for use on the Moon's surface. The film used for Apollo 11 was loaded and several test shots were conducted prior to the flight. When the film magazines were returned for processing after the mission, the test shots were cut off and processed first. These were compared against accurate color charts to ensure that there would be no defects in processing the remaining film and that the colors would be most accurate.

The film magazines were each fitted with a tether ring. To the ring, a cord was attached that permitted the entire camera to be lowered from the lunar module cabin to Neil Armstrong on the surface using a clothesline-like arrangement. The exposed film magazines were lifted from the surface in the same manner.

The camera and lens were left behind and still rest on the Moon's surface at Tranquility Base. A total of 12 were used on the moon.

Photography has evolved in leaps and bounds since the first walk on the moon but the deft quality, detailing, and the high contrast of images produced by Apollo 11 team captivate millions around the globe even today.

First Published: Thu, July 18 2019. 13:05 IST
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