The camera that went to the moon and changed how we see it

Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 commander
Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 commander, approaches the parked lunar roving vehicle on the lunar surface.
Harrison H. Schmitt | NASA

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.

Astronaut Walter Schirra checks out his spacecraft's camera equipment
Astronaut Walter Schirra, center, checks out his spacecraft's camera equipment with Paul Becker of McDonnell, left, and Roland Williams of RCA.

"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 was a much more sophisticated — and pricey — choice than the simple Ansco Autoset that John Glenn bought for $40 at a Cocoa Beach, Fla., drug store. Glenn used it to take pictures from orbit on Friendship 7 in February 1962. The Hasselblad retailed for about $500 and used a much larger negative than Glenn's 35 mm camera. It also sported interchangeable, Carl Zeiss lenses and removable film magazines.

Astronaut Alan L. Bean
Astronaut Alan L. Bean holds a container filled with lunar soil collected during the extravehicular activity in which astronauts Charles Conrad Jr., commander, and Bean, lunar module pilot, participated.
Charles Conrad Jr. | NASA

An "astronaut-proof" Hasselblad

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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.

For example, Rise says, a release for the film magazine was removed to prevent it from being accidentally bumped in flight. It was made so only a ground-based engineer with a wrench could free it. A waist-level viewfinder was ditched in favor of a simple, custom side-finder that could be aimed while wearing a helmet and visor, he says.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the moon
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity.
Neil A. Armstrong | NASA

"Imagine trying to fit inside an industrial washing machine and taking a photo through the window upside down," explains Rise. "It's hard to look through the viewfinder when you're in such a tight space."

In a 1998 NASA interview, Schirra acknowledged that his six orbits in October 1962 didn'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 says until then, the space agency was so focused on the technical side of spaceflight that photography was something of an afterthought.

A close-up view of an astronaut's bootprint
A close-up view of an astronaut's bootprint in the lunar soil, photographed with a 70 mm lunar surface camera during the Apollo 11 mission on the moon.
Neil A. Armstrong | NASA

He says 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.

Astronaut Alan  Bean removing an experiment at the landing site
Astronaut Alan Bean removing an experiment at the landing site for Apollo 12 in November 1969.
Pete Conrad | NASA

The Lunar Surface Data Camera

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 Reseau 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. 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.

Astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. collecting lunar samples
Astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is photographed collecting lunar samples at Station No. 1 during the first Apollo 16 mission. Duke is standing at the rim of Plum crater. The parked lunar roving vehicle can be seen in the left background.
John W. Young | NASA

The shutter button and other controls were made larger for ease of operation while 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.

Astronaut David Scott, commander of Apollo 15
AstronautnDavid Scott, commander of Apollo 15, salutes the American flag at the mission's Hadley-Apennine landing site on Aug. 1, 1971

While the landings produced some stunning images, it's not surprising that without a viewfinder, some of them were poorly framed, she says. "There are about 18,000 or so images taken during the Apollo program and there are plenty that aren't any good."

Looking for "any shot" of Armstrong

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.

Astronaut Eugene Cernan is photographed inside the lunar module
Astronaut Eugene Cernan is photographed inside the lunar module on the lunar surface. Note lunar dust on his suit.
Harrison H. Schmitt | NASA

An official NASA document describes how the space agency's public affairs department, scrambling to satisfy the media requests 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," Levasseur says.

The Apollo 16 Command Module Casper, photographed in April 1972
The Apollo 16 Command Module Casper, photographed in April 1972.

"There were no directions to take photographs of each other, which I always find really interesting," she says. "You're going to travel all the way to the moon and nobody ever thought, 'Gee, 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.

The Apollo 11 ascent stage
The Apollo 11 ascent stage, with astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin aboard, is photographed in lunar orbit. The lunar module was making its docking approach. The large, dark-colored area in the background is Smyth's Sea; Earth rises above the lunar horizon.
Michael Collins | NASA

A few of the cameras themselves also returned, Levasseur says, but 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.