September 27, 2017

The Birth of Space Photography

Apollo 11 Earthrise over the Lunar Surface. July 20, 1969. Signed by Astronaut Buzz Aldrin 

The origins of space photography began as an afterthought when John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. The camera he took into space was bought at a local drugstore and retrofitted so that he could better control it in a spacesuit. That modification was the birth of a new genre of photography that would bring images of space to Earth for the first time.   

John Glenn's official portrait as one of NASA's original seven Mercury astronauts

When space photography was first pioneered, it was not without technological and political complications. With the Cold War between the United States and Russia as the catalyst for the Space Race, many feared that taking photographs in space would be construed as acts of espionage. Fortunately, the espionage responsibilities fell to satellites as their technology and capabilities were vastly superior to their predecessor, the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft; as a result space photography was relegated to use by lunar probes to help plan the Apollo 11 missions. Over 100,000 photographs later Apollo 11’s landing sites had been mapped and selected for exploration by man.

‍Lunar Surveyor Mosaic. Day 019, Survey M. Sectors 1 and 2

Space photography advanced enough that by the time Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon, the mission was carrying two 16mm Maurer motion picture film cameras, a black and white TV camera, a color television camera, a Kodak stereo close up camera, and three Hasselblad 500EL cameras. What was previously an afterthought became a vital part of scientific data collection.

‍Apollo 11 Astronaut Edwin Aldrin descends Lunar Module to walk on the Moon, July 20, 1969

The Hasselblad camera’s design was specifically modified to make them scientific instruments. They had a register class that was engraved with grid markings. These markings, with intersections calibrated to a tolerance of .002mm made it possible to calculate distance and height in the photographs. The cameras were even painted silver to help balance the internal temperatures in preparation for any extreme temperatures that the astronauts might face. The collaboration between NASA and Hasselblad sealed space photography as an integral component of the scientific processes for this and all future generations of astronauts. The photographs from this time are historical documents as well as iconic images. The current sale, Exploring the Cosmos: An Important Sale of Vintage NASA Photography contains many of these images such as the famous ‘Earthrise’, Gemini 4’s first US spacewalk, and astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong exploring the moon on Apollo 11. Many of the photographs are autographed by these legendary explorers.


These and many other historical photographs of the space race are on sale now through October 5th on


NASA History
Detailed information on the collaboration between NASA and Hasselblad 
Catalog of photos 
Footage of the Historic Apollo Moon Landing

To view live auctions click here.

Have something like this? Click here to consign.