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The Moon in Pictures, from Apollo 17 to Artemis 1

With this week’s return from its mission to the moon, NASA’s Artemis 1 reignites humanity’s love affair with the moon through photography.
NASA Apollo 17 on the Moon Photography

“Man, this thing shakes like a son-of-a-gun!”

So said Astronaut Ronald Evans as he sat strapped to the nose of a Saturn V rocket, 1 minute and 14 seconds after liftoff of Apollo 17 on December 6, 1972. Thirteen days later, having orbited the moon 75 times, he returned to earth along with Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt—his astronaut colleagues who had walked on the lunar surface. They are the last humans to do so. 

Earlier this week, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission also returned safely to earth, 50 years to the week of that Apollo 17 moonwalk. Artemis, named for the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, did not touch down on the lunar surface but instead spent a week orbiting and taking pictures—lots and lots of pictures. 

The moon holds an important place in the history of photography. Likewise, photography has been fundamental in our understanding of the moon. The Apollo missions 50 years ago famously used Hasselblad cameras to document that desolate gray rock in what turned out to be gorgeous detail. Never before had humans photographed a celestial body up close and personal and provided photographic evidence of the most profound type: a human footprint on the surface of the moon. 

While the major difference between the photographs of Apollo and Artemis is one of technology, the image quality of those old photographs was tremendous. A medium format negative contains similar information to an 80-megapixel digital sensor, so fidelity was not an issue. In fact the biggest difference between Apollo and Artemis photography is personnel. The 1972 photographs were made by astronauts hand-holding Hasselblad cameras (one being, somewhat controversially, left on the surface of the moon) while the 2022 Artemis images were captured remotely. 

The 363-foot tall Apollo 17 space vehicle lifted off from Kennedy Space Center just after midnight on December 7, 1972. The final lunar landing mission of the Apollo program was the first nighttime liftoff of the Saturn V rocket. When Artemis 1 lifted off in November 2022, it also did so at night.

As an unmanned mission, Artemis 1’s Orion spacecraft was equipped with 16 cameras, including those purpose built for navigation as well as consumer cameras such as the GoPro Hero 4. On the official NASA Johnson Flickr photostream, each image includes capture specifications including exposure data and more. In the venn diagram where photo geek overlaps with space geek, NASA’s Flickr photostreams are dead center.

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Another difference between Apollo 17 and Artemis 1 is trajectory. In 1972, NASA’s Apollo program had been canceled and that last manned mission to the moon was a melancholy affair. By contrast Artemis 1 represents a moon program once again on the upswing, with Artemis 2 planned to carry a manned crew to orbit the moon within two years and Artemis 3 to once again deliver humans to the lunar surface before the end of the decade. New photographs made by humans on the moon, coming soon. 

It is in that spirit that we present a collection of astounding photographs, captured by Artemis 1 and Apollo 17 on their missions to the moon a half century apart.

 

The first high-resolution image taken on the first day of the Artemis 1 mission was captured by a camera atop one of the craft’s solar arrays. The Orion spacecraft was 57,000 miles from Earth on its way to orbit the moon.

 

Apollo 17 mission commander Gene Cernan photographed by a crewmate aboard the spacecraft near the end of their first day in space.

 

While Artemis 1’s Orion spacecraft was unmanned it was not empty. Commander Moonikin Campos was one of three mannequins on board, designed to collect data on what future human crews might experience on a mission to the moon.

 

Astronaut Gene Cernan stands next to the Lunar Roving Vehicle during an EVA—extravehicular activity—at the Taurus-Littrow landing site of the sixth and final Apollo lunar landing mission. Astronauts carried stereoscopic cameras for close-up photography of lunar objects, and frequently captured an image with the Hasselblad medium format camera then stepped to the side to make another capture with the idea that such paired images could be viewed in stereo. 

 

This image of the lunar surface was captured by the optical navigation camera on Artemis 1’s Orion spacecraft. The optical navigation camera is used to provide enhanced data both to certify its effectiveness and to help orient the spacecraft on future crewed missions between Earth and the moon.

   

On day 20 of the Artemis 1 mission, a GoPro HERO4 camera (black color) captured this image of the moon during the return powered flyby which committed the spacecraft to its eventual December 11th splashdown.

 

This panorama is a composite of multiple images captured by Gene Cernan during the first moonwalk of the Apollo 17 mission. Though stitched from multiple frames, the image received minimal retouching by NASA imagery specialists including the removal of lens flare and darkening the sky to the horizon. Astronauts reported that stars were not visible from the surface of the moon due to the bright surface reflection of the sun.

 

Having returned to the lunar module after the final moonwalk of the Apollo 17 mission, a visibly dirty astronaut Gene Cernan smiles as crewmate Jack Schmitt makes his portrait. 

 

At 12:40pm EST on December 11, 2022, NASA’s Orion spacecraft returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean and ending the 25-day Artemis 1 mission to the moon.

 

A U.S. Navy swimmer stands on the flotation collar around the Apollo 17 Command Module following splashdown the afternoon of December 19, 1972. The three astronauts aboard had already been picked up and flown to the deck of recovery ship USS Ticonderoga in the background.

 

Artemis 1’s Orion spacecraft was recovered by the USS Portland on December 11, 2022, off the coast of Baja California.

To see more from NASA’s gallery of high-resolution images from the Artemis 1 mission, visit the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Flickr Photostream.

The NASA Commons Flickr photostream contains hundreds of images from the dawn of flight 120 years ago to the Artemis 1 mission. 

The entirety of NASA’s image collection from the Apollo era can be found online at NASA.gov.  

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For an unbelievably interesting immersive Apollo 17 experience, check out Apollo in Real Time. This multimedia website, created by Apollo historian Ben Feist, synchronizes mission data with audio, video and photographs to provide detail and context about the circumstances immediately surrounding the mission, as well as the now-iconic images it provided. Immerse yourself in Apollo 17 in Real Time here

Lastly, dig into Apollo 17 documentation and mission information at the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s Apollo 17 Mission Overview website. Filled with photos and a narrative surrounding the mission—including great information about Apollo photographic equipment—the site provides immense value for those interested in better understanding the context of this last manned mission to the surface of the moon. 

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