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Apollo photos redux: The story behind the NASA moon pics posted to Flickr

The Project Apollo Archive is adding thousands of unprocessed, high-resolution scans of the Apollo astronauts' photos to Flickr.
October 8, 2015

— The addition of tens of thousands of the Apollo astronauts' moon photos to an online repository drew worldwide media interest this week, but lost in many of the headlines were the facts behind the four-decade-old photographs.

Numerous news articles declared the photos were "never before seen" and attributed the upload to NASA, neither of which were true. The images were described as "new" and "secret" and "restored," when, in fact, they are old, public and untouched.

"Contrary to some recent media reports, this Flickr gallery is not a NASA undertaking, but an independent one," said Kipp Teague, the founder of the Project Apollo Archive, in an introduction he wrote for the newly-added gallery. "[This is] a re-presentation of the public domain, NASA-provided Apollo mission imagery as it was originally provided in its raw, high-resolution and unprocessed form."

For 15 years, Teague's Project Apollo Archive website has been presenting and organizing the photographs taken by astronauts during the 11 Apollo missions, including the six that successfully landed on the moon between July 1969 and December 1972. Those photos include iconic images, such as the shot first moonwalker Neil Armstrong took of Buzz Aldrin standing at Tranquility Base, as well the more seldom seen imagery of landscapes and hardware.

Split view of astronaut Buzz Aldrin with the unprocessed scan on left and processed image on right. (Project Apollo Archive/NASA)

Initially, the photographs on Teague's website were NASA-provided scans made from "master dupes" – duplicates of the film used in the astronauts' Hasselblad cameras. But in 2004, Teague began adding images based on the scans taken directly from the 70mm film magazines, or rolls, as received from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"The process involves removing each original [flown] film roll from a double-freezer, allowing it to thaw, then digitally scanning each frame using a long roll film scanner," wrote Teague in 2004, describing how the scans were produced.

These scans were scaled down and color-corrected before they appeared on the Archive.

In the decade that followed, users of Teague's site and the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, another independent project documenting the astronauts' activities on the moon, have made requests for an improved presentation of the gallery, as well as asked about the photos' original resolution and the processing that had been applied to the scans.

Those requests led to Teague uploading the full-resolution, unprocessed scans to Flickr.

Raw, unprocessed photo of the Apollo 14 lunar module "Antares" taken on the moon in 1971. (Project Apollo Archive/NASA)

As the media caught attention of the new gallery though, the story behind the photos — and about Teague, himself — began to spin out of control.

"In one article I was described as an employee of Johnson Space Center, and in another, the headline indicated that a 'NASA astronaut' had uploaded the images," Teague told collectSPACE in an email. "My role has at most been as a volunteer working with the NASA History Office from my home in Virginia, and alongside Eric Jones in support of his 'bible' of the Apollo missions, the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal."

Teague began the upload process in late-September with the addition of two magazines of photos. By the time he is finished later this month, he expects the gallery to present at least 13,000 images.

But none of the photos are new or have never before been seen, said Teague.

"I do not believe any of these images are actually new to the public, as all have been available over the years by one means or another," he said. "The grand majority have been available online in one format or another."

Stop-motion animation created from hundreds of the images in the new Project Apollo Archive Flickr gallery. Enlarge and view the video in a new pop-up window. (harrisonicus on Vimeo)

That's not to suggest that the Project Apollo Archive Flickr Gallery doesn't deserve to be celebrated in the media and elsewhere.

The availability of the full-resolution scans has already led to enthusiasts stitching together collections of the photos to create new panoramas and animations. Teague has set up a new Facebook page where he plans to occasionally share newly-rendered versions of the Apollo imagery.

In addition to Teague's efforts to make the raw Hasselblad photos accessible, Arizona State University partnered with NASA in 2007 to digitally scan all of the original film from the Apollo moon missions, focusing primarily on the larger format film used in lunar orbit. That project has produced and put online more than 10,000 metric and almost 5,000 panoramic frames.

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