Captured on film: the pioneers of space exploration and the first photographs they took

NASA’s space missions have produced some unforgettable images, from the first Earthrise to the earliest photograph of the surface of Mars. Illustrated with some of the 327 lots offered in Christie’s online sale, Moon Shots: Space Photography 1950-1999


Left, Neil Armstrong and David Scott at the launch of Gemini VIII on 16 March 1966. Sold for £252. Right, a view of the Moon’s surface from Apollo 15. Sold for £378 on 18 May at Christie’s Online

A few weeks before he was set to become the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn was visiting Cocoa Beach in Florida — a short drive from Cape Canaveral — when he walked into a drugstore and purchased a Minolta Ansco Autoset 35mm camera to take with him into space.

Photography had been something of an afterthought when America launched its space programme in 1958. The primary concern was whether its astronauts would be able to see, swallow and breathe in weightless conditions.

But just months prior to Glenn’s launch, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had proven it was possible to survive in space, spending 1 hour and 48 minutes in orbit up to 187 miles above Earth.

Glenn and his NASA engineers set about modifying his basic $40 camera, which was one of the first automatic models available to the public. Flipped upside down, it was fitted with a pistol grip and trigger, as well as a larger viewfinder that allowed Glenn to use the camera without removing his visor.

Days later, on 20 February 1962, Glenn pressed the camera against the window of his Friendship 7 capsule and shot a picture of North Africa. It was the first hand-held photograph ever taken by a human in space, and it captured the public’s imagination.

Below are five highlights from Christie’s sale Moon Shots: Space Photography 1950-1999, which documents the development of NASA’s space photography over the decades that followed.

The first American to walk in space (1965)

On 3 June 1965, astronaut Ed White stepped out of Gemini IV to become the first American to walk in space. Tethered to his capsule by a golden umbilical line, and wearing a spacesuit that contained 21 layers of thermal and micrometeoroid protection, White floated in zero gravity while orbiting the Earth at 17,500mph.

Mounted on top of his gas-powered manoeuvring gun was a small, custom-built Zeiss Contarex 35mm camera, complete with enlarged buttons designed to be operated while wearing bulky gloves.

Inside the capsule was White’s crewmate, James McDivitt. ‘Ed, I ought to be getting some tremendous pictures of you,’ he radioed to White outside, while scrambling for his custom Hasselblad camera. White noted that his air supply was dangerously low. ‘OK. Stand by. Let me take a couple of pictures, ole buddy,’ McDivitt persisted.

McDivitt later recalled being so scrunched up inside the capsule that he didn’t have room to hold the camera in front of his face, so the shots involved an element of guesswork. ‘I’m a good pistol and rifle shot,’ he later said. ‘Maybe that helped.’

The first photograph of Earth taken by a human (1968)

In December 1968, William Anders, James Lovell and Frank Borman embarked on a mission to photograph ideal lunar landing spots for later launches. During their journey, the Apollo 8 crew became the first people to see the Moon’s far side, as well as the Earth as a complete sphere suspended in space.

On Christmas Eve, after circling the Moon for the fourth time, Anders was greeted by the scene above. Recalling the techniques he had learnt in training, he reached for his heavily modified Hasselblad camera, which featured a simple sighting ring instead of the regular reflex viewfinder and a custom Zeiss Sonnar 250mm telephoto lens, and shot this image from the module’s side window. It was the first time Earthrise had been documented in colour by a human.

An experiment in 3D photography (1968)

In the foreground of this photograph, showing Buzz Aldrin preparing to deploy a series of scientific experiments, is a 35mm Apollo Lunar Surface Closeup Camera, or ALSCC. It was developed by NASA in conjunction with Kodak in 1968, and was designed to take close-up images of lunar soil during the Apollo 11, 12 and 14 missions.

The unusual device, which resembles a vacuum cleaner, featured two lenses and an electronic flash. It was intended for easy use — the astronauts simply had to place it on the Moon’s surface and pull a trigger at the end of a long handle.

The camera would take two overlapping images 10 inches from the ground, each 9 square inches in size. Once developed back on Earth and viewed through anaglyph glasses with red and cyan lenses, the image would appear in 3D, giving scientists the chance to study how rocks settled across the Moon’s surface.

An unfamiliar colour image of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong planting the Stars and Stripes (1969)

On 20 July 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first humans to step on the Moon. After several minutes spent collecting data, the pair stopped to plant the American flag on the surface.

The moment was broadcast live on television in black and white via a 16mm Westinghouse camera specially equipped to deal with the high contrast between light and shade on the Moon. Less well known, however, is this colour image of the occasion, taken by a small automatic camera mounted to the window of the Eagle lunar module.

The crew of Apollo 11 also took three Hasselblad 500EL cameras and 33 rolls of film on their mission. One of them featured a custom-made glass register plate engraved with grids that could establish the photographs’ distances and heights. It was also coloured silver to help maintain uniform internal temperatures during extremes of hot and cold, and its mechanism’s lubricants had been removed to avoid them instantly boiling in the vacuum of space.

Armstrong’s exposed films were relayed back to the Eagle along a line. He left his camera on the Moon’s surface, however, where it remains today at Tranquillity Base.

The first colour image of the surface of Mars (1976)

After 11 months and half a billion miles of space travel, Viking 1 became the first craft to make a successful landing on Mars on 20 July 1976. On touchdown, the vehicle sent a black-and-white photograph of its own foot back to Earth, in order to give NASA scientists an understanding of the bearing strength of the planet’s surface.

The following day, Viking 1 took its first colour image of Mars. The view expands south-east from the craft, under a sky turned red by the reflection of scattering dust suspended in the lower atmosphere.

To ensure the colours in the photograph were accurate, the scene was scanned three times by Viking’s camera, on each occasion with a different filter. A second photograph was then taken of a specially designed chart mounted to the rear of the spacecraft, which was adjusted until the greyscale was correct. This same level of calibration was then applied to the original landscape image, giving a true representation of the brown Martian bedrock.

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Viking 1 and its sister spacecraft Viking 2, which landed a few months later, were only intended to function for 90 days — but they worked for six years, gathering more than 16,000 photographs.

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