Blue Marble Mystery

Blue Marble Mystery

Rocketing to the moon on the last manned expedition of the Apollo program, were Eugene Cernan and Ronald Evans, both engineers, and Harrison Schmitt, a geologist.

They were all pilots. Of course they were also photographers—amongst the hundreds of pounds of moon rocks and thousands of images the astronauts returned with, were some real gems. One of those images, known as the Blue Marble, has become the most widely distributed photo of all time. 

“Photo credit was always given as a crew,” says Mike Gentry, the NASA image librarian who distributed moon mission photos to the press. “But that one is controversial. They were jokesters, and all three astronauts have claimed at one time or another, to have taken it.” 

For the photos from the lunar surface however, you don’t have to be a detective to determine the shooter. Evans was in orbit while Cernan and Schmitt explored the surface, and Cernan, the Commander, had red stripes on his spacesuit.

Van Hansen interviewed Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt at Western University’s Canadian Space Summit 2012 in London, ON. Story originally published in Photography Monthly magazine, May 2013. Top photo by Van Hansen, all others NASA or USGS.

  • ”Blue
  • Cernan with Rover
  • Schmitt Pano
  • Geology Hammer

Van Hansen: You were the last man to set foot on the moon. How did the Apollo 17 experience affect you on a personal level?

Harrison Schmitt: There’s no fundamental change in the personality that you have. But once you’ve been to the moon, you’ve been to the moon, and people know that. So it opens up new opportunities for doing things here on Earth, as well as new responsibilities.

Van Hansen: What is your earliest memory of photography?

Harrison Schmitt: I started using a camera as far back as I can remember, with an old Kodak Brownie when I was a kid. 

Van Hansen: What role did photography play in your geological fieldwork on Earth?

Harrison Schmitt: I always used a camera in the field to document outcrops and the appearance of rocks. Particularly for a PhD thesis you want to include as many illustrations of that kind as you can to support your conclusions. 

Van Hansen: When did you start working on photographic procedures related to the Apollo program?

Harrison Schmitt: The first work I did was in 1964 with the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. They had a contract with NASA to try to determine how best to conduct photography that would document lunar samples, before and after collection. The group was under the direction of Eugene Shoemaker, the famous astro-geologist. And we just began from a clean sheet of paper and started to work out the kind of procedures that ultimately were used in Apollo. 

Van Hansen: How did your photographic training evolve during Apollo, and how integrated was it with the geological fieldwork training?

Photo taken by Apollo 17 crew during their trans-Earth coast homeward on December 17, 1972

Harrison Schmitt: As soon as we started to do actual simulations of the EVAs, or extra-vehicular activities, that the crews were going to do on the moon, we got the Hasselblad cameras and were using those in the field starting with Apollo 11. Now Apollo 11 didn’t do any stereo documentation of the sample sites; that began on Apollo 12, becoming a normal and active procedure on Apollo 13. Of course, Apollo 13 didn’t land but that crew undertook the first advanced training simulation that I put together for the astronaut office. It included the process of getting detailed stereo pictures before and after sampling, which included what we called a gnomon that you’ve probably seen in some of the pictures. And a locator shot tied the sample site to the lunar module or some other prominent feature, to help to precisely locate the sample site. To see the photos after our return we used stereo viewers, stereo glasses that you set on top of the pictures and manipulate them until you get stereo. It was much more primitive than the production of computer derived anaglyph (3D) images available today. 

Highly publicized orange soil found by Schmitt at Shorty Crater during EVA 2 from the Taurus-Littrow landing site December 12th, 1972

Van Hansen: What was the gnomon?

Harrison Schmitt: It was a three-legged device you set in the field of view of the pictures to give you three things; it had a colour and greyscale for calibration of the film, it had a vertical scale—a rod that was gimbaled so it would seek the local gravity vertically, and a sun shadow to give you azimuth. 

Van Hansen: What kind of colour film did you use?

Harrison Schmitt: Apollo 17 had a brand new Kodak film called Ektachrome 368, and it really was the best film that we ever took to the moon. 

Schmitt adjusts camera settings for a cross-sun ‘before’ of a sample that Cernan is set to collect with tongs in this training exercise August 28, 1972

Van Hansen: Were the camera settings worked out in advance for the shots you expected to take?

Harrision Schmitt: Yes, the moon is very nice that way—it’s very predictable. We had this constant shutter speed, so f-stops is all we had to change, using what we called a little mickey mouse ear lever. We had our down-sun, cross-sun, and up-sun settings, and we changed them depending on the direction we were taking the picture, relative to the sun. 

Van Hansen: What about the orbital photography from the Command Module?

Harrison Schmitt: Most of the photography taken from orbit was done from what was called the SIM bay, the scientific instrument module, and those were different cameras. The mapping camera and the panometric camera that was in the SIM bay took really remarkably detailed pictures on all of the last three Apollo missions. But Ron Evans also had a Hasselblad onboard and he took many pictures out of the windows, some very fine ones, and he also had a Nikon (35mm) camera used for interior photography. 

Geological field training exercise at Boulder City, NV on January 24, 1972; Schmitt and Cernan look over the exercise traverse map

Van Hansen: How did the photography on the lunar surface compare with landscape photography on Earth—I guess you weren’t out there with the aim of taking scenic photos per se?

Harrison Schmitt: Well we did take plenty of those. You’ve seen the panoramas that ended up giving us scenic photography, but they also documented the area around each of the experiment stations in a geological context. 

Van Hansen: Did you have a list of required photos?

Harrison Schmitt: Oh no, there was no set number of pictures that you would take. It was more that if you’re going to put the flag up, then document it. And the sample documentation was a procedure that we practiced so often that it was just sort of a natural thing to do but there was no checklist other than, say, something that requires a panorama, well then we’d take one. 

Van Hansen: Would you say that the photos rank along with the samples as the most valuable cargo you returned with?

Harrison Schmitt: The samples had to be the most valuable but they were even more so because we could document where each sample came from as a result of taking the stereo photography before and after collection. So the photography enhanced the value of the samples, there’s no question about that. 

Van Hansen: There has been some mystery surrounding who took the Blue Marble photo. Cernan and Evans had switched seats for the manoeuvre of transposition, docking, and (lunar module) extraction, so Evans was in the left seat by window one, with you in your normal right seat by window five. What is your recollection of that time, about five hours after launch when those three or four frames of the full Earth were taken?

Harrison Schmitt: I was taking photography of the Earth well before transposition and docking. As we were leaving the Earth of course we had a beautiful view of Madagascar and Africa all the way out until we were well on our way to the moon. The primary purpose of the photography was to document my observations of weather patterns on the Earth. And so the first of that documentation was indeed the nearly full Earth picture that I believe you’re referring to. 

Van Hansen: So you’re confirming that you did take the Blue Marble shot?

Harrison Schmitt: Yes, I’m being fairly clear and most people agreed that’s what happened. I was using the camera to document weather patterns.

Van Hansen: How much photography do you do nowadays?

Harrison Schmitt: I still do a lot of photography; I think like everybody else I take a lot of tourist photos, and photos around my house, things like that. Now of course I’ve been using digital cameras for years. Currently I have a wildlife camera operating near the house. We live near the wilderness and we get all sorts of animals on that so my wife and I have a great deal of fun every morning going through the chip to see what transpired during the night. 

Harrison Schmitt in 1972, NASA portrait

Hasselblad’s Lunar Camera

One of Victor Hasselblad’s cameras went on a space shot for the first time in 1962—a model 500C, owned by (Project Mercury) Astronaut Walker Schirra. NASA was so impressed with the Hasselblad’s image quality and reliability that they have become a staple on US manned spaceflights. 

The Apollo program flew 13 Hasselblad EDCs (Electric Data Cameras) to the moon. They were based on the model 500EL, which had an electric motor to wind the film and put tension on the shutter, but with further modifications for space. 

The EDCs were silver coloured to make them resistant to temperature changes, with the 70mm film magazines painted the same way. Conventional lubricants were removed as they could boil off in the vacuum. To make the cameras suitable for photogrammetry, a reseau-plate was installed, superimposing a grid of black crosses onto each image, allowing distance information to be derived from the images. 

Zeiss Biogon 60mm f/5.6 lenses with polarising filters were used on the surface. Focusing involved using a relatively high aperture with the wide-angle lens, allowing for a relatively large depth-of-field. The focusing ring had three preset positions: near, medium, and far distance. The shutter release trigger was on the camera handle. With no viewfinder, the astrobauts would aim the chest-mounted cameras by changing position. 

Apollo 17 used three EDCs on the lunar surface. Cernan and Schmitt each carried one, fitted with the 60mm lens, and they also had a camera fitted with a 500mm lens. There was a 500EL in the Command Module, with lenses, including the Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.8 (normal) lens, which Schmitt used to capture the Blue Marble. 

About the Author

Van Hansen

While Van is Not Allowed to Sing™, he is allowed to write songs and stories. Mostly stories. Published in magazines such as Canadian Aviator, Canadian Geographic, Costco Connection, Photography Monthly, and The Walrus, Van now shares with you the everyday adventures of the People in Your Neighbourhood™. Van is a real estate broker with the full-service boutique brokerage Apex Results Realty Inc. in Burlington, ON.

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