The Mystery of the 'Only Camera to Come Back from the Moon'
The astronauts that went to the Moon took some nice souvenirs home. You'll never guess what happened next.
This highly-valued Hasselblad lunar module pilot camera might have been on the moon. Photo: WestLicht-Auction.com
Space can be complicated, especially when it's up for sale.
After a furious bidding war in Vienna on Saturday, a Japanese camera collector has bought a Hasselblad camera for $910,000 in a record-setting auction of what's been widely called the "only camera to come back from the moon."
But contrary to claims repeated across the Internet on Monday, this isn't the only camera to come back from the moon.
In fact, some think it may have never landed on the moon at all. And because of rules surrounding most NASA property, its sale may actually violate US law.
One thing we know for sure, maybe: the 70mm Hasselblad 500 is one of fourteen cutting-edge cameras that astronauts used in orbit around the moon and on the lunar surface during the Apollo program. This particular camera was, reports the Verge, among many other sources, "used on the moon during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971," and "is special in the fact that it's returned to Earth." That's because astronauts were often instructed to jettison their cameras on the lunar surface in order to save precious room and weight for moon rocks during the return trip.
But while most cameras of the Apollo program were left behind on the moon, a few others did come home. While some of NASA's records regarding space stuff have been lost, some have indicated that at least four of them returned to Earth with their amateur cameramen.
In 2011, I got to touch one of them. It was shortly after the camera had become the centerpiece of a bizarre controversy, one that also highlighted the historical and legal ambiguity of space artifacts, and our undying fascination with them.
A few months before the newly-auctioned Hasselblad went to space in 1971, the Apollo 14 astronauts Edgar Mitchell and Alan Shepard carried out their moonwalks (and took a couple of swings with a makeshift golf club) under the eye of another kind of camera, a Maurer data acquisition camera, mounted inside the lunar module.
As usual, because of the need to save room for lunar rocks, their supervisors had instructed Mitchell to remove the film cassette but toss the camera out onto the moon, like so much other garbage, before returning to Earth.
But Mitchell—who also happens to be the only astronaut to conduct a psychic experiment in space—ran out of time while packing up.
"Alan [Shepard] said, 'grab the camera and don't worry about it," Mitchell told me in 2011. He stowed the camera on board the lunar module and took it home. When he emerged from quarantine three weeks later, Mitchell found the camera sitting on his desk, along with some other items from the mission, bequeathed to him by Apollo's support crew as a memento.
In 2011, Mitchell, who is now 83, announced his plans to sell the camera at auction. Auctioning "flown" stuff like patches and pins and other stuff that's been to space is customary practice for Apollo astronauts. But these cameras—which were purpose-designed for use by the nineteen people who either landed on or circled the moon—aren't your usual space stuff.
When President Kennedy issued his vision for a manned moon mission within the decade in 1963, NASA knew a camera would become one of the mission's primary scientific instruments, and a pretty good political tool too.
In 1965, the Swedish company Hasselblad launched it's EL camera, tantalizing engineers at NASA who needed a camera that could take a sequence of photos at short intervals. The agency sent its final specifications to Hasselblad in September 1968, and its demands were exacting. To build the Hasselblad 500, the company modified the shutter mechanism, chose special lubricants for the lens, and accellerated development of a 70mm magazine.
Along with the new camera would be a completely new lens, specially designed by Carl Zeiss to diminish distortion. The finished cameras for Apollo 11 were delivered by Hasselblad on March 1, 1969, just four months before the launch.
These and similar cameras—either mounted inside the orbiting command module or attached to space suits at the chest—produced all of the images we have from that and subsequent moon missions.
While Hasselblad and Zeiss were NASA's camera equipment of choice, a few other companies did lunar duty too; Nikon, Kodak and Angenieux are also listed on manifests from that era. Mitchell's machine, developed by the J. A. Maurer company, was a 16mm film camera designed to record both terrain photography and engineering data, with specifications and capabilities that matched the Hasselblad. A number of other cameras that have been to space, if not to the moon, have circulated through the souvenir markets. One of them, a Hasselblad 500 EL used early on in the Apollo program, is for sale on eBay right now; you can buy it now for just under $42,000.
In recent years Mitchell supported himself, like a good number of astronauts, with a meager speaking and writing career, and he had hoped to make a tidy profit by taking his souvenir to auction. Bonhams in New York listed the Maurer in a catalog in 2011.
But before the auction could take place, Mitchell received an unwelcome surprise from his former employer: a lawsuit demanding that he return the camera and some other mementos.
"Forty years later," Mitchell said, "some—and forgive my language—asshole at NASA decides they want some of this stuff back."
Mitchell pointed out that it has long been NASA custom to let astronauts take home souvenirs. And besides, he said, any claims by NASA about stolen property were too old to be valid. But a judge threw out Mitchell's motion to that effect, and in 2012, he came to a settlement with NASA in which he agreed to cede the camera to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
But that year, the claims by Mitchell and other surviving astronauts to their souvenirs were validated by a new law signed by President Obama. It said that astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions had full ownership rights over their mementos, provided they were allowed to take them home in the first place. (Astronauts from later space programs, like the shuttle or Space Station, were already somewhat restricted in what they can own or sell.). It begins with a simple definition:
SECTION 1. DEFINITION OF ARTIFACT.
For purposes of this Act, the term `artifact' means, with respect to an astronaut described in section 2(a), any expendable item utilized in missions for the Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo programs through the completion of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project not expressly required to be returned to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at the completion of the mission and other expendable, disposable, or personal-use items utilized by such astronaut during participation in any such program. The term includes personal logs, checklists, flight manuals, prototype and proof test articles used in training, and disposable flight hardware salvaged from jettisoned lunar modules. The term does not include lunar rocks and other lunar material.
NASA's administrator Charles Bolden said the law clarified "fundamental misunderstandings and unclear policies." More importantly, it avoided the ugly sight of NASA pursuing more of its former astronauts—and national heroes—in court.
Still, the question of whether astronauts and other NASA employees have a right to the stuff they take home—and the right to sell it—has quietly become a growing concern at the space agency. Beyond their clothing and the personal bag that astronauts take to space—typically full of things like stamps, personal effects, and sometimes more unusual things—most equipment used by NASA employees technically belongs to the US government. And for health and safety reasons, NASA says that some of this material must be destroyed or buried.
"What we have found over the years—and this is going back many, many years—is that there wasn't as tight a control over these things," said Jim Hull, who oversees the agency's deep archive of space artifacts in Washington.
When we spoke in 2011, as NASA was preparing to dispense with the Shuttle program and all its stuff, Hull acknowledged that tight control over the agency's materials was complicated not just by the occasional problem of missing records, but by the longstanding custom that has permitted all NASA's employees to take souvenirs home.
"Let's say a guy in his prime worked on Apollo," Hull said. "Then he retires. He's given one of the things he worked on as a memento for thirty years of his work, signed by astronauts. Maybe it's a plaque, signed by Buzz and Neil, some little thing flown on Apollo 11."
"Fast forward thirty years and little Lulu is bequeathed with it. She's 14 and she realizes it's worth tens of thousands of dollars, and puts it up on eBay."
This is where NASA's inspector general steps in. The IG regularly checks eBay and other auction sites for unauthorized sales of NASA property. In 2011, police in Florida arrested a NASA contractor after the agency charged him with stealing 11 of the space shuttle's specially designed heat tiles and selling them on eBay, where they fetched hundreds of dollars apiece. Not only had the contractor stolen NASA property by taking the tiles home, said NASA: he had violated State Dept. export controls by selling them to buyers outside of the US, and broken rules that requires that all spent tiles be buried in a landfill due to health and legal concerns.
Still, Hull said, "theft" at NASA isn't so cut and dry. "How many twelve-year-old girls do you want to drag into court for selling federal property? The IG doesn't pursue these things if they don't make sense."
And per the 2012 law about space memorabilia, astronauts are allowed to keep mementos that have been expressly given to them.
As for the newly auctioned Hasselblad, it's unclear how exactly it ended up in private hands, and thus whether its sale was valid to begin with.
Westlicht, the Austrian gallery that auctioned the camera, said it was used by astronaut James Irwin during the Apollo 15 mission. But it was not officially given to Irwin as a souvenir. If it was officially dispossessed by NASA, it would have been through other means. And if it didn't go through official channels, the camera may technically be "stolen."
"We simply don't know," the space historian Robert Pearlman told me by email. "The sale could be legal if the camera passed through the established property disposal procedures at NASA, but we don't have any information to say whether it did or did not."
"If it is indeed the camera that was used by Jim Irwin, then he didn't return it to Earth as a souvenir, so the 2012 law that made it legal for Apollo astronauts to keep (or sell) their lunar-returned mementos would not seem to apply (and no one is claiming the camera originated from Irwin or his estate)."
"Sorry, I don't know," said Stefan Musil, a spokesperson for Westlicht, when I asked how the camera was transferred from NASA to private hands. I also asked NASA for a comment about the auction and will update this story when I hear back.
While its unclear whether Irwin used this camera on the lunar surface, this isn't the first time the astronaut has been connected to a controversial piece of space memorabilia. After he returned to Earth in 1971, Irwin and his crewmates were reprimanded by NASA administrators for taking an unauthorized set of commemorative postage stamp covers to the moon at the request of a German stamp dealer.
When NASA officials discovered that the covers were up for sale in Germany a few months after the mission had ended, they removed Irwin and his crewmates from flight duty. Congress launched an investigation.
The "postage stamp incident" as it was known, came on the heels of a similar incident involving the crew of Apollo 14, who had carried a set of medallions to the moon at the request of the Franklin Mint. As a result of the controversy, NASA established a rule in 1972 that limited each astronaut to "no more than 12 personal items weighing no more than one-half pound" and packed in their bag, as well as a prohibition against commercializing any of those items. (Irwin passed away in 1991, and the 300 stamp covers he and his crew took to space are still hot items among space collectors. In 2008, one of them sold at auction for $15,000.)
Aside from questions about the legality of the Hasselblad's sale, there are also doubts about whether the camera was actually used on the moon at all. Some eagle-eyed historians have suggested that the camera was instead used only on board the lunar orbiter, and never made it to the lunar surface with Irwin.
According to the serial number listed on Westlicht's website, the camera has been put up for auction at least once before. In 2012, shortly after the passage of the bill that gave Apollo and Mercury astronauts rights to their space stuff, Alain Lazzarini, a Hasselblad collector and the author of the book "Hasselblad and the Moon," sold the camera at a Boston auction for $42,704, with a different lens and film magazine. At that time, the camera was only described as having flown in the Apollo command module in lunar orbit, but not having landed on the moon.
"I feel certain that this camera flew in the Apollo command service module during one or more lunar flights," NASA's former motion picture photographer Dick Williamson wrote in a letter included with the earlier auction.
Since questions about the camera began circulating in January, Westlicht—which sold a 1923 Leica prototype for a record-setting 2.16 million euros in 2012—backed off an earlier claim that this was "the only" camera to return from the moon.
The auction house said the camera would be sold with "extensive documentation" from its former owner. When I asked Musil, the Westlicht spokesperson, for any documents that can further validate the camera's origin, he referred me only to the letter by Dick Williamson that sold with it during the 2012 auction.
In January, Peter Coeln, the director of Westlicht, pointed to a seemingly strong bit of evidence: Because the camera's interior glass plate, known as a Reseau plate, has the number 38 stamped on it, just like the photos taken by James Irwin during his lunar walk, Coeln had "100-percent proof that this camera is the real thing and really was on the moon," he told the AFP.
But some space stuff enthusiasts still aren't convinced that the camera went to the moon at all, pointing to a few other discrepancies.
For instance, the cross-hairs and the number "38" that appear on photos released by the auction house don't seem to line up with photos Irwin took on the moon.
"I think it is obvious that both are not identical," a memorabilia collector told Pearlman after comparing the photos (below), but added that the camera body might still have flown. "It could be that post-mission the original Reseau plate was damaged and had to be exchanged."
"To sum this camera up," wrote another amateur historian on Pearlman's website, CollectSpace.com, "in my opinion the reseau plate number has been added, the LMP stickers are missing, the serial numbers are wrong, the magazine is wrong, the velcro and the lens have been added later. Considering the amount of money someone is going to pay for this item as it is currently being promoted I am annoyed and amazed that no one is even slightly concerned about these discrepancies over its authenticity."
Still, the camera, purchased by a Japanese collector named Terukazu Fujisawa, fetched an astronomical 550,000 euros ($760,000), plus fees, far outdoing its estimated price of around 200,000 euros.
Typically, auction houses protect themselves from claims of fraud, Pearlman said, provided they can show that any inaccuracies were accidental.
"Mistakes happen, and auction houses are sometimes reliant on what their consignor tells them," he said. But even after Westlicht provided more information about the camera ahead of the auction, Pearlman said it "still left a number of questions unanswered."
In short, because NASA didn't give the camera to Irwin as a souvenir, we aren't sure how it ended up in private hands, and thus, whether its sale is legal under US law. And we don't know for certain whether the camera landed on the moon or merely circled it.
But Coeln, the auctioneer, produced another bit of proof ahead of the auction on Saturday: "It has moon dust on it," he said.
Curiously that claim, like so much else about the near-million-dollar camera, wasn't mentioned in the auction catalogue and hasn't been precisely verified. But the ambiguity makes for an interesting lesson in the material history of spaceflight. Or at least, for a big auction and a catchy headline.