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Trending: To The Moon and Back, a History in Photographs

By David Schonauer   Wednesday July 24, 2019

For the astronauts of Apollo 11, July 24, 1969 was a busy day.

Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins awoke at 6:45 in their Columbia command module and began preparing for the final phase of their moon mission. They had left Earth on July 16, thrown into space on top of a 30-story Saturn V rocket. On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin had descended to the Moon’s surface in the lunar lander nicknamed Eagle. There, they had spent 21 hours collecting rocks and setting up a few scientific experiments. They also took a call from President Richard Nixon and planted a U.S. flag.

After their return flight, it was time to ready their spacecraft for its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. At 12:21 on July 24, Collins powered down the craft’s service module, which was then jettisoned, as the lunar lander had been earlier. The command module lifeboat with the three astronauts aboard reentered the Earth’s atmosphere shortly afterward. At 23,000 its parachutes began to deploy. The splashdown came at 12:51 pm, some 950 miles southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii.

The three explorers came back to a changed world, and as changed people.

They were heroes — not only American heroes, but global heroes representing all mankind. An estimated 500 to 600 million people (one-fifth the world’s human population) had watched the landing on TV or followed live radio coverage. In London, people had gathered in Trafalgar Square to watch on giant TV screens. “Moonship Dodges Rocky Crater to Make Perfect Landing” had been the headline of the Auckland Star of New Zealand. “Les Premiers Hommes Sur La Lune,” declared France’s Le Figargo.

"I think it's just wonderful to be on Earth and to live [through] what's going on on the Moon," said one Frenchman in a TV interview. "And I thank the Americans also for what they have done for the world."

It was the culmination of a remarkable effort, the fulfillment of a 1961 pledge by President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth within a decade. What followed, however, was a long denouement. Over the next three and a half years, six NASA moon missions would land 10 men on the moon. By the end, the novelty of the enterprise had worn off. According to some accounts, NASA had to pay TV networks to air broadcasts from the Moon during the final Apollo mission, 1972’s Apollo 17.

Fifty years later, the world has reacted again to man’s first steps on the Moon. The media has once again been filled with accounts of the mission — and with images that bring the history alive. The New York Times has published a series of articles about the Moon mission, including an article featuring images the Apollo 11 astronauts took themselves. The Washington Post also published a series on Apollo 11, noting that “The majesty and miracle of the 1969 moon landing ‘still boggles the mind.’” As part of a series on the Apollo 11 mission in The Atlantic, the publication's In Focus blog focused on photography from the mission.

The art world has also been moonstruck. On view through September 22 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the exhibition “Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography,” which surveys visual representations of the moon “from the dawn of photography through the present.”

David Burnett photo of Apollo 11 launch, from Leica Gallery SF

Worldwide coverage of the Moon landing

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Apollo’s Muse”

“The show amounts to a testament to the human drive to know and explore, and it quietly affirms the growing influence of visual representations of the moon from the invention of the telescope through the first manned moon landing 50 years ago,” noted The New York Times.

We also recently took note of an exhibition (and book) featuring photojournalist David Burnett’s pictures made during at Cape Kennedy during the launch of Apollo 11. Burnett took an unusual approach to his coverage, focusing not on the launch itself but on the crowds of people who came to witness the event.

Beyond art, the photo world is celebrating the Apollo 11 moon landing in more commercial ways: Hasselblad, which made cameras used by Apollo astronauts, also commemorated the landing, announcing that it will make a Special Edition matte black version of its 907x camera body and CFV II 50c digital back with a commemorative “On the Moon Since 1969” plate on the side.

New York Times writer Ross Douthat recently declared that Apollo 11 represented “the peak of American greatness.” The effort to put a man on the Moon, though, was born not out of splendid hopes for humanity's future but out of fear and desperation — a race to attain the ultimate military high ground in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. That race led to the technological achievements and spiritual will that would one day put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon.

Before taking off, Armstrong said he was confident about returning alive; he was far less sure of a successful Moon landing, putting the odds at just 50-50. According to space historian Andrew Chalkin, walking on the Moon was a letdown for Armstrong; for him, the peak moment of greatness was piloting the lunar lander onto the Sea of Tranquility. What came next was anticlimax.

In a way, the same could be said for America as a whole. The Moon landing marked the beginning of an era of space exploration, but it also marked an ending of a dream. The greatness was the effort, not the success. Before Apollo 11, the Moon had been a distant object of desire for poets and lovers. After Apollo 11, it was just another place a man had walked. In Sept. 1969, The New Yorker magazine published a poem by W.H. Auden, called "Moon Landing," that dismissed the Apollo 11 mission as a mere "phallic triumph." 

It was more than that. In our celebrations of the Moon mission today — as we look at NASA’s astonishing archive of photographs, the depictions of the Moon exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the awed spectators captured by David Burnett — our eyes search to identify the greatness that was.

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At top: From the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography”

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