Oct 29, 2019

The First Floating Photographers

(printed in the Piedmont Post, Wednesday, June 19, 2019)

By Camella Bontaites, PhD

When John Glenn became the first American in orbit in 1962, NASA had many unknowns to contend with: Will he be able to swallow easily in microgravity? Will his eyes function properly? Making sure that Glenn had the right photography equipment was not high on the priority list. NASA did supply him with one camera. He purchased a second at a local drug store, which they hastily modified so he could still use it while wearing his bulky pressure suit, gloves and helmet. 
They did not put much store in what types of images would come back, and in fact, there was serious concern that taking photos of other nations from space could be considered an act of will or even war. 

Ainsco Autoset 35mm, the camera used by John Glenn on the Friendship 7 in 1962
By 1968, photography’s role in space had changed. One of Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders’ primary tasks during the first lunar orbit was to photograph the Moon’s surface, particularly the far side, which no one had yet seen. An unexpectedly dramatic view appeared when he gazed out of the spacecraft window to photograph the Moon, and saw the Earth rising behind it. The iconic photo that captured this moment became known as Earthrise. For the first time, we could look back to see just how fragile and beautiful our planet appeared as it hung in the darkness of space. The powerful image became the symbol of the first Earth Day in 1970, and is often credited with helping to propel the environmental movement.

Earthrise, taken from lunar orbit by astronaut William Anders
on December 24, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission

A new array of international images from astronauts, satellites and rovers have brought us increasingly compelling views and new discoveries, and our eye is on the Moon once more. This summer, cultural institutions across the country will highlight the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk, featuring the role photography continues to play in understanding the Moon.

The National Gallery in Washington DC will open “By the Light of the Silvery Moon: A Century of Lunar Photographs,” and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City will open “Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography” in July. Much closer to home, Chabot Space and Science Center in partnership with NASA’s Ames Research Center will open “Luminous Moon,” on June 22. The exhibition features more than 50 stunning high-resolution images that bring you the Moon as seen through the lens- es of Chabot’s 36-inch tele- scope, by NASA astronauts, and by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) – a satellite launched in 2009 to explore the lunar landscape, and the research findings of LRO’s Laser Altimeter and NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory.

Together they reveal the sweeping views and most intricate features of our closest cosmic neighbor, exploring vast craters, once-active volcanoes, and the shadowed depths that hold water ice, and herald the potential for humans to return.