When Science Becomes Art: NASA Photography of the Moon and Mars

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Launch Slideshow

From 1966-75, NASA sent a series of unmanned spacecraft to photograph the surfaces of the moon and Mars; five Lunar Orbiters mapped 99% of the moon, while Mariner IX and Viking Orbiters 1 & 2 mapped 100% of the surface of Mars. Getting the spacecraft to their destinations was a miracle of engineering, but the process of taking the images and relaying them to earth was a technological feat that almost defies belief. The results were absolutely breathtaking, and the images revealed startlingly stark and beautiful landscapes. After stepping onto the lunar surface in 1969, Buzz Aldrin famously described it as “magnificent desolation.” These images – available in our 20 July Space Exploration auction – bring this desolate magnificence to life, and give the next generation of astronauts a view of the new frontier on Mars. Click ahead to explore the spectacular images taken by these otherworldly spacecraft-photographers and the remarkable processes used to create them. –Cassandra Hatton, Senior Specialist Books & Manuscripts

Space Exploration
20 July | New York

When Science Becomes Art: NASA Photography of the Moon and Mars

  • Lunar Orbiter I. Man’s First Look at the Earth from the Moon, 23 August 1966. Estimate $4,000–6,000.
    NASA sent five Lunar Orbiters between 1966-67. Orbiters I-III had the objective of imaging 20 potential landing sites, and were flown at low inclination orbits. Each Orbiter was equipped with a dual-lens Kodak camera (one medium resolution wide angle 80 mm lens and one 610 mm high resolution telephoto lens), a film-processing unit, a readout scanner and a film handling apparatus. Each lens then placed its exposures on a single roll of 70 mm film.




    (This image, taken by Lunar Orbiter I on 23 August 1966 is perhaps the most famous – our very first view of Earth as seen from the moon, taken from a vantage point of 730 miles above the farside. The image bears lines that are characteristic of all Lunar Orbiter images, and are a by-product of the complicated process used to create them.)

  • Lunar Orbiter II. "The Picture of the Century" – Oblique View Into the Heart of Crater Copernicus, 24 November 1966. Estimate $3,000–5,000.
    The film was moved during exposure to compensate for the spacecraft velocity, which was estimated by an electric-optical sensor. The film was then processed on board the Orbiter by a method Kodak invented called Bimat (akin to the Polaroid process).




    (Hailed by Life magazine as "The Picture of the Century," the image at left is an oblique view into the heart of Crater Copernicus, taken from approximately 28.4 miles above the surface, from a vantage point of 150 miles south of the crater. Until this photo the few images that had been taken of the lunar surface were from a perpendicular angle – this was the first to be taken from an oblique angle, and thus the first ever view of the rugged surface, with its mountains and valleys. )

  • Lunar Orbiter V. Farside of the Moon with Mare Moscoviense, 13 August 1967. Estimate $1,500–2,500.
    The film was then passed through an analogue scanner, which in turn transmitted the data back to Earth by radio using technology largely derived from television broadcasting and developed by the Research & Development wing of CBS. This data was then gathered by three NASA Deep Space Network receiving stations, and sent to the Army Map Service and the NASA Langley Research Centre (LRC).




    (Lunar Orbiters IV-V were flown in high altitude polar orbits – the entire nearside of the moon and 95% of the farside were captured by Lunar Orbiter IV, and the remainder of the farside was completed by Lunar Orbiter V. The image at left, taken by Lunar Orbiter V is a medium resolution frame of the farside, with the Mare Moscoviense [Sea of Moscow] and the craters Campbell and D'Alembert clearly visible.)

  • Lunar Orbiter V. Harbinger Mountains, 15 August 1967. Estimate $2,000–3,000.
    The video signal was then converted into variations of light on a cathode ray tube, producing an image that was then captured on positive film by a 35 mm camera. These film positives, or framelets, are then placed side-by-side to recreate the original Orbiter photograph. These framelets are considered zero-generation. From them, negatives were produced – and from those, contact prints.




    (The image at left clearly shows how these framelets could then be tiled together like a puzzle to form large telephoto panoramas. Taken by Lunar Orbiter V on 15 August 1967, these two telephoto panoramas made up of nine silver gelatin prints joined show the Harbinger Mountains, so-named because they serve as the harbingers of dawn on the crater Aristarchus. An isolated cluster of mountains at the Mare Ibruim basin's western edge, they consist of four primary mountain ridges, as well as several hills.)

  • Lunar Orbiter V. Oversize View of the Crater Aristarchus, 18 August 1967. Estimate $100,000–125,000.
    The above image is one of only two known copies, depicting the complex impact crater Aristarchus, taken using a 24-inch focal length lens from an altitude of 80 m. Aristarchus is considered the brightest of the large formations on the lunar surface, and is visible to the naked eye being 23 miles in diameter and 10,000 feet deep. Probably formed about 175 million years ago, it is one of the most geologically interesting regions of the moon. There have even been periodic sightings of reddish gas emissions from the crater rim.




    (Consisting of four telephoto panoramas, each comprising eight silver gelatin prints mounted, and measuring approximately five feet tall by nearly five feet wide, the image at left is perhaps the most striking to have been taken by any Lunar Orbiter.)


  • Mariner IX. The Equatorial Belt of Mars with Olympus Mons Visible, 14 November 1971-27 October 1972. Estimate $15,000–25,000.
    Mariner IX launched on 30 May 1971. Images sent back of the planet's surface revealed an incredible rocky landscape reminiscent of the lunar surface, complete with impact craters, canyons, valleys, volcanoes and dry lakebeds. After completing its final transmission on 27 October 1972 it had photomapped 100% of the planet’s surface. The images were then printed on photo paper and hand trimmed. Using a detailed diagram of the spacecraft’s photographic coverage of the planet, the images were then assembled into a mosaic image by hand onto a large board. These mosaics were then photographed and printed out, and then corrected, enhanced and reassembled before the final mosaics were printed.




    (The mosaic at left, made up of images taken from 14 November 1971 through 27 October 1972 shows the Equatorial belt of Mars, covering about half the planet’s surface. Olympus Mons and Curiosity Rover’s landing site at Gale Crater are visible.)

  • Viking Orbiter. Hand Mosaic of Mars, ca. 1979. Estimate $1,500–2,500.
    Viking Orbiters 1 & 2 launched in August and September 1975 and arrived approximately ten months later. Both Orbiters were first used exclusively to search for and certify a safe landing site for their landers.  After doing so, they set about systematically imaging the planet’s surface using a remarkable twin camera system.




    (The image at left, consisting of images taken ca. 1979 shows a spectacular wide view of the Martian surface, and is made up of nine silver gelatin prints joined).

  • Viking Orbiter. Hand Mosaic of Mars, ca. 1979. Estimate $3,000–5,000.
    These twin cameras were similar to television cameras, and each was fitted with a 475 mm Cassegranian telescopic lens assembly. The cameras operated alternately, with one shuttering at the end of the readout scan of the other.




    (The image at left, consisting of images taken ca. 1979 shows some of the dramatic landscape of the Martian surface, with spectacular impact craters and lava tubes stretching across the surface. This mosaic is made up of 15 silver gelatin prints joined).

  • Viking Orbiter. Hand Mosaic of Mars, ca. 1979. Estimate $6,000–9,000.
    Each image was the product of a single readout of the slow scan video sensor, with the 1.25 million pixels in each image arranged in a matrix of 1056 lines x 1182 samples. Images used in the production of the mosaics were cut from this format with each image identified by a unique alphanumeric designator picture number known as a PICNO. The resulting products are breathtaking, giving us a high-resolution view of a planet that has captured our imaginations for generations.




    (The image at left, consisting of images taken ca. 1979 reveals the dramatic variety in the Martian landscape. This mosaic is made up of 45 silver gelatin prints joined.)

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