Over 600 vintage space photographs from NASA missions, many not seen by the public before, are on view in London until their auction at the end of the month. Highlights of From the Earth to the Moon: Vintage NASA Photographs are at Mallett Antiques through February 19, then the full collection goes on display at Bloomsbury Auctions until the sale on February 26.
One of the major sources for From the Earth to the Moon is the personal photo album of astronaut Ed White. It chronicles the 1965 Gemini 4 mission in behind-the-scenes detail, where the astronauts prepare for their expedition in the tiny module, and when up above the atmosphere White took the first US space walk. Tragically, White later died in the Apollo 1 cabin fire during a rehearsal prior to its planned February 21, 1967 launch.
The Kodak paper prints from the album are presented alongside incredible shots like a time-exposure of the Gemini 10 launch, Buzz Aldrin posed with an American flag on the moon (its rippling waves formed with wire to mimic wind), and Eugene Cernan’s photograph of Harrison Schmitt with the Earth above on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, the last time a human has stood on the lunar surface. There are also captures from the ground documenting the missions, like Ralph Morse’s July 16, 1969 photograph for LIFE magazine of the triumphant Apollo 11 lifting off with Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins for its historic trip to the Moon.
“You have to realize that the rocket had to go through the camera, in a sense,” Morse is quoted as saying in reference to the image. “It had to go through the camera’s field of view. It took me two years to get NASA to agree to let me make this shot. Now, RCA had the camera contract at Cape Canaveral at that time, and they had a steel box-with optical glass-attached to the launch platform. We negotiated a deal with them and I was able to put a Nikon, with maybe 30 or 40 feet of film, inside the box, looking out through the glass. The camera was wired into the launch countdown, and at around minus-four seconds the camera started shooting something like ten frames per second.”
If the auction of memorabilia from the NASA missions makes you raise an eyebrow in terms of ownership, ever since a bill was signed into law in September of 2012, astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crews have “full ownership rights” to “artifacts from the astronauts’ space missions” that they received and kept. And with NASA’s Orion, morphed from the cancelled Constellation program, still in concept stage, these photographs are now valuable talismans of the glory days of human-piloted space exploration. Yet their continued interest to us is a reminder that public excitement about space travel still thrives. As Ray Bradbury once said in response to negative reactions to the moon landings: “This is the result of six billion years of evolution. Tonight, we have given the lie to gravity. We have reached for the stars … And you refuse celebrate? To hell with you!”
Highlights of From the Earth to the Moon: Vintage NASA Photographs are on view through February 19 at Mallett Antiques (Ely House, 37 Dover Street, London). The full collection is on view at Bloomsbury Auctions (Bloomsbury House, 24 Maddox Street, London) from February 22 to 25.