Culture

Project Apollo Archive posts thousands of Apollo space mission photos online

Each Apollo astronaut was equipped with a specially modified Hasselblad camera, resulting in thousands of iconic space images that are now collated in one place.

Earthrise, snapped from the lunar orbit of the Apollo 10 mission, May 1969. NASA

By the time NASA's Apollo program rolled around, space photography was starting to be seen as valuable. It wasn't just for mission planning (almost 100,000 photographs of the moon were taken by NASA's lunar probes to help map the Apollo landing sites), but because they help share the profound experience of being in space, and seeing Earth from far away.

Among the standard-issue equipment sent up into space along with the 27 Apollo astronauts who flew to the moon was a Swedish-made Hasselblad camera. After Hasselblads were used during the last two Mercury missions, NASA began to equip every astronaut with a Hasselblad camera.

Now many of these photographs taken by astronauts are freely available online, in a newly created Flickr account called the Project Apollo Archive. To date, it contains over 11,660 photographs.

For the Mercury and Gemini missions, the astronauts used unmodified Hasselblad 550C medium-format cameras. These, NASA's Gary Kitmacher explained, were easy to use, allowing the astronauts to snap away.

"In addition to the excellent mechanical and optical properties of the cameras and their Zeiss lenses, the cameras were relatively simple to use, and film was pre-loaded into magazines that could easily be interchanged in mid-roll when lighting situations changed," wrote Kitmacher, a NASA project manager who, among other things, has been involved in the design of the International Space Station.

For the Apollo 8 mission, the crew used, for the first time, the electric Hasselblad 500EL cameras, with motors that automated the photography. The astronauts set the distance, lens aperture and shutter speed. The camera did the rest, exposing and winding the film, and tensioning the shutter.

In addition to the cameras and lenses, the mission also carried seven magazines of 70mm film. Each of these could take 160 colour photographs and 200 black-and-white photographs. The Apollo 8 crew returned with 1,100 photographs.

The Apollo 11 crew was equipped with three Hasselblad cameras and four motion picture cameras. Two of these were the same Hasselblad 500ELs models used during Apollo 8 and 10, and the last was specially modified with a Reseau plate. A Reseau plate is a glass plate engraved with grid markings that was placed between the camera body and the film magazine. The grid markings then show up on any images that are taken with the camera. It's why you see space photos from Apollo 11 on with little cross markings. These are used to accurately calculate distances and heights.

Engineer Wally Schirra, aboard the Apollo 7 mission, in Earth orbit, October 1968. NASA

In addition to the Hasselblads, NASA commissioned a Kodak camera that was used to take stereo close-up photos of the moon's surface. This photographic equipment then remained more or less the same for the remaining Apollo missions, with some adjustments to the complementary lenses.

These photographs form the basis of the archive, collated not by NASA, but a personal project by a private citizen called Kipp Teague, who maintains the unofficial Project Apollo Archive website.

"The Project Apollo Archive was created in 1999 as a companion to my Contact Light website... a personal restrospective of the era of the space race. A subsequent collaboration between the Archive and Eric Jones' Apollo Lunar Surface Journal led to acquisition over the years of countless historic Apollo and other space history images generously provided by NASA and others for processing and hosting on the NASA-hosted Journal as well as on my site," Teague explained.

"This new Flickr gallery is not a NASA undertaking, but an independent one, involving re-presentation of the public domain NASA-provided Apollo mission imagery as it was originally provided in its raw, high-resolution and unprocessed form by the Johnson Space Centre on DVD-R and including from the centre's Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth website. Processed images from few film magazines to fill in gaps were also obtained from the Lunar and Planetary Institute's Apollo Image Atlas."

It's a tremendously fascinating resource, and because the images are from NASA, a government-owned institution, they're all in the public domain. You can check out the entire archive of photographs on the Project Apollo Archive Flickr page, and follow the Facebook page for selected highlights.