Making the Moon Camera
A Documentary by Cole Rise & Evan Lane.
A Documentary by Cole Rise & Evan Lane.
When you’re heading to the moon, what camera do you bring? Fifty years ago, we left home for the first time. We leapt off the surface of the earth in the largest rocket ever built, flew 240,000 miles, and landed; burying our feet in the dust of another celestial body. As we stood there, on a new surface in that far away place, an amazing thing happened. We turned around and looked back. Returning home, our most valuable cargo wasn’t moon rocks… it was a new perspective, captured on 70mm film. Photos that inspired generations of new explorers, engineers, and inventors to reach for greatness. Photos that sparked movements, shaped culture, and continue to have a lasting affect on our every day lives.
This is the story of the camera we took with us capture that perspective - arguably the most important camera ever made - and what it would take to re-make one today.
Feel free to reach out to learn more about the project, the process, or the history of the camera.
A stepping-stone to the moon camera.
It was 1962. Astronaut Wally Schirra needed a camera for his mission as the third American to orbit the Earth. A photography enthusiast, he picked up a Hasselblad 500C from his local camera store and worked with NASA engineers and a contractor from RCA to modify it for space flight.
By going through the tedious process of remaking this camera, you begin to uncover it’s secrets and the thought processes that went into making it space-worthy. It was the seed that eventually cemented Hasselblad’s relationship with NASA as the defector space camera maker. And it was the project that taught me the skills required to eventually make a functional lunar camera.
This particular camera was used in coordination with researchers from NOAA and the Department of Defense to determine what filters would be most amenable for future weather and spy satellites. A special dark slide was made that used multiple color filters that allowed scientists to study what worked best for the upper atmosphere, cloud heights, and clarity of certain land masses. We still rely on those findings today.
Roland “Red” Williams worked as a camera technician for RCA, a contractor for the newly announced American space program. Little did he know he’d be tasked with modifying the cameras we’d send with our first astronauts in space.
To prevent accidental opening of the film back in space, the film back insert was ground flat, and the latch was removed, replaced by two holes that were drilled for a spanner wrench to be used by camera specialists on the ground.
Due to the tight constraints of the mercury capsule, looking through the mirror and focusing screen was impossible, so a cold shoe (removed from the camera of the previous mission) was added a for an accessory viewfinder that allowed the camera to be shot close to the head while rotated 90 degrees to the right.
As an off-the-shelf consumer model, this Hasselblad 500C was fully chrome with a fine leatherette that could outgas in a vacuum, contaminating the photos. The modified camera stripped of all leather, and painted flat black to prevent reflections in the mercury spacecraft window, a characteristic that informed future Gemini and Apollo space cameras.
The 80mm F2.8 Carl Zeiss lens, the first in space, was heavily modified to remove features not needed for the mission, and make focusing easier with pressurized space gloves. The flash sync, depth-of-field preview, and timer switch were removed before painting and reassembly.
Cole is a photographer, designer, entrepreneur, pilot, and space camera maker. Obsessed with space and shooting Hasselblad for a over a decade, Cole spent the last two years training to became a Hasselblad technician, studying the original mission notes from NASA and obsolete Hasselblad repair manuals. He built a custom workshop for replicating NASA cameras, using many of the same tools and materials available in the 1960's - down to replicating NASA's temperature resistant foil stickers.
A photographer by trade, you can find his latest work here.