Essays

Family Portrait on the Moon

by Don Edler on November 21, 2012

A detail of the photograph showing the family portrait on the surface of the moon. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Have you seen the photograph of Astronaut Charles Duke and his family that was left on the Moon in 1972? It is a small 3×5 color photo of Duke, his wife Dorothy and their two sons Charles and Thomas posing for a studio portrait. The image is wrapped in a resealable plastic bag and shows an ideal American family for the era; Duke is kneeling next to Dorothy as the boys stand in the foreground. It is evenly composed and everyone looks happy. On the back of the photo Duke left the message “This is the family of Astronaut Duke from Planet Earth. Landed on the Moon, April, 1972.”

Photograph of Astronaut Charles Duke’s family left on Descartes Highlands — Apollo 16, April 1972, Photograph by Charles Duke — American Natural History Museum.

If you visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York you can find a document of this photo near the end of the ramp that exits the Hayden Planetarium. Duke documented his image with a specially prepared Hasselblad medium format camera mounted to his space suit. You can see a partial boot print and some lunar rover tread marks in the corners of the image, they provide a reference of scale and also suggest the softness of the lunar surface.

An image has the potential to change the way we understand our world. Images speak to us almost instantaneously, they reflect color into our eyes at the speed of light and our brains process the billions of bits of information they carry almost as quickly. When I first saw the documentation of Duke’s photo I was inexplicably overwhelmed by a crisis of understanding. I knew the image I was looking at meant something, but I could not understand what that something was.

I wonder if Duke thought about the far-off destiny of his modest family portrait, did he consider the fact that the Moon’s lack of an atmosphere meant that his relic would lie in rest undisturbed by wind, moisture or erosion? Did Duke, knowing that the Apollo missions would soon end, realize that his image would potentially remain undisturbed for millions of years, likely out-lasting human civilization?

What provoked Astronaut Charles Duke to leave an image of himself and his family on the Moon?

Duke left his image near the Apollo 16 landing site in a region of the Moon known as the Descartes Highlands named after the nearby Descartes crater, itself named after the French philosopher. This region is on the near side of the Moon, which, due to the synchronous rotation of the Moon’s orbit will always face the Earth. Did Duke place his image knowing that it would forever look down onto our pale blue dot? Was he considering the placement of his image, and did he intend it to carry meaning, was it a memento of his existence, or was he leaving a message for a far-off encounter with someone, or something and if so, what did he mean to say?

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