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The first selfie in space

Simon Willis on an auction of NASA photographs

Simon Willis | February 25th 2015

On February 20th 1962, the astronaut John Glenn blasted into space on board Friendship 7. He had with him a 35mm Ansco camera, bought for less than $20 at a high-street store. From the capsule’s small window he captured a simple, pale picture of broken cloud patterns, milky-white against grey, shrouded in a thin powdery atmosphere. It was the first picture of Earth from space that a man ever took.

This picture is one of almost 700 lots being auctioned in London tomorrow as part of the largest ever sale of NASA photographs, and it is one of the auction’s many firsts. The sale, which ranges from the early Sixties to the final Apollo missions in the early Seventies, includes the first photograph of a man on the surface of another world: Neil Armstrong’s shot of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, standing at the foot of the Eagle. There is the first selfie ever taken in space: Aldrin again, on board Gemini 12 in 1966, his left eye peering out from the shadows cast by his helmet with Earth visible behind him (above). And there’s James McDivitt’s picture of Ed White floating serenely outside Gemini 4 in 1965: the first American space walk.

In a way, McDivitt’s picture is the most important in the sale, because it changed NASA’s attitude to photography and made the pictures that followed possible. His shots persuaded NASA that photography was a useful scientific medium, giving a synoptic view of land-masses, weather patterns and climate systems. The space walk also made the cover of Life magazine, convincing NASA that good pictures made great PR. From then on, astronauts were trained in photography, the lessons given by an Earth scientist called Richard Underwood, who had experience taking high-altitude shots. And while Glenn had taken his own equipment, astronauts were now given specially adapted Hasselblad cameras with buttons big enough to be pushed by clumsy gloved fingers and filled with specially adapted Kodak film, which allowed more pictures to be taken on each roll.

Underwood would confer with the crews about where to point their cameras. “I had access to…all the weather satellites,” he said later. “No point in saying, hey, we want you to get a picture of a certain area when we know it's cloudy. And also we knew where the storms were and fronts and other weather things to tell them, ‘Hey, you're going to come up on a hurricane three hours from now…Try to get a series of pictures.’” This tutelage helped the astronauts on Gemini 7 capture a sunset over the Andes, the clouds all cream and gold and impressionistic . They could also plan for grander spectacles. The crew of Apollo 12 photographed Earth as it eclipsed the sun, our planet reduced to thin red sickle with a flare at its centre, an effect to outdo anything in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”. 

But as well as galactic bling, these pictures are full of intrepid solitude: little helmeted heads poking out of hatches, and isolated lunar landers. In one shot, the landing site of Apollo 14 is seen in the distance, and leading away from it are a rover’s tyre tracks shining like slug trails in the sunlight. These photographers could find atmosphere even where there wasn’t any. 

Inevitably, given the period documented by the pictures, the sale revolves around the Moon. Among the rarest—and most expensive—are a series of bleak and rocky panoramas made up of as many as 11 separate images showing views across craters and canyons or towards lines of low hills. For all their greyscale plainness, these are among the most affecting pictures. The catalogue quotes the NASA scientist Oran W. Nicks on how he felt the first time he saw a shadowy image of the Copernicus crater in 1966. “I was awed,” he said, “by the sudden realisation that this prominent lunar feature I have often viewed by telescope is a landscape of real mountains and valleys.” It’s looking at another place close up rather than our own place from a distance that gives you the biggest jolt.

From Earth to the Moon: Vintage NASA Photographs Bloomsbury Auctions, London, February 26th

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