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A rare photograph of Neil Armstrong on the Moon’s surface during the pioneering Apollo 11 mission of July 1969 went on auction yesterday. The 70mm shot — part of a wider panorama — shows the astronaut packing bulk samples into the so-called Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly (MESA) on the Eagle lander during the first-ever lunar extravehicular activity, or “EVA” as it is commonly abbreviated. Valued at $20,000–30,000, (£16,700 – £25,140) the image, along with other stunning memorabilia from the early days of space exploration, is being sold in Bonhams’ online “Space Photography” auction, which closes December 1.
What makes the photograph so special is that it was long thought that there were no “proper” photographs of Mr Armstrong on the lunar surface. Mission crewmate Buzz Aldrin is said to have thought Mr Armstrong the better photographer, and was content to let him take the lead with the camera.
Where the confusion really began, however, was when — on returning to Earth, waiting in quarantine in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory — Mr Armstrong was asked at what point he handed over the camera to Mr Aldrin.
Mr Armstrong, in his characteristically precise manner, replied that he had not. As Manned Space Flight Center (today the Johnson Space Center) Head of Public Affairs, Brian Duff, later recalled, the conversation went something like as follows.
Mr Duff asked: “Neil, this is Brian. When did you give the camera to Buzz?” To which Mr Armstrong responded: “I never did” — a response both accurate, but open to misinterpretation.
A rare photo of Neil Armstrong on the Moon’s surface went on auction yesterday
The shot of Armstrong reflected in Aldrin’s visor was long thought the only one from the EVA
In reality, it had never been the plan that Mr Armstrong would pass the 70mm Hasselblad camera over to his colleague. In fact, the flight plan followed by the astronauts dictated that Mr Armstrong leave the camera on the MESA, for Mr Aldrin to collect when ready.
Mr Aldrin did indeed pick up the camera where it had been left for him, and took 48 pictures during the lunar EVA — there are images 5876-5900; 5904-5926 on Magazine S (40).
Regardless, the miscommunication meant that — for some two decades — NASA thought that there were no direct, 70mm, still photographs taken of the first man to walk on the Moon. Accordingly, their publicity team released, instead, the famous photograph taken by Mr Armstrong in which his reflection can be seen in the visor of Mr Aldrin’s spacesuit.
(As Bonham’s specialist Adam Stackhouse explains, there are 16mm images of Mr Armstrong on the lunar surface, although these were extracted from video footage taken by the Maurer automatic data acquisition camera on the Eagle module.)
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Pictured: Also on auction is the first-ever ‘space selfie’
Pictured: Also on auction is the first-ever shot of the Earth from the Moon
It wasn’t until 1987 that two British researchers — Harry John Philip Arnold and Keith Wilson — independently determined that Mr Aldrin had indeed used the camera during the EVA. Mr Wilson was the first to publish his findings, after confirming with Mr Armstrong himself, in that year’s August issue of the magazine Spaceflight.
The delay in realising that it was Mr Armstrong, not Mr Aldrin, in the shot meant that very few so-called NASA “red number” photographs of the film were developed and issued.
(NASA prints from this era — given to both the press and people involved in the mission — were released with identification numbers that came in three colours. Red was typically used for colour print, black for monochrome, and blue were processed in a different way to their predecessors.)
The photo of Mr Aldrin in question is a red number — AS11-40-5886 — one of a few copies of which were issued shortly after Apollo 11 returned to Earth. As Mr Stackhouse told Express.co.uk: “They printed some at the time. Not very many, because if no one knew who it was, they just assumed it was another Adrin shot.
Bonhams is selling AS11-40-5886 on behalf of a private space enthusiast. The photograph has been to auction a few times before, Mr Stackhouse noted, as was still misunderstood to be a shot of Mr Aldrin as recently as around 10 years ago.
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Pictured: also on auction are photos of the Moon’s surface taken by the Lunar Orbiter probes
According to Mr Stackhouse, the Armstrong photograph is just one of the highlights of the Space Photography auction. Other gems include the first-ever images of the Earth as seen from Moon — nine silver gelatin prints, joined to form a panorama, that were taken by the robotic Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft on August 23, 1966.
Also up for sale is a copy of the first “space selfie” taken by Buzz Aldrin in 1966 during the Gemini 12 mission, and more photographs taken by the Lunar Orbiter probes and transmitted down to Earth that NASA used to map much of the Moon’s surface.
There’s something special, Mr Stackhouse concluded, about seeing photographs from the early days of space exploration. He said: “It really conveys the experience better than reading accounts!”
More information about the Space Photography auction can be found on the Bonhams website.