The giant leap for Mankind: A contact sheet view, half a decade later

Aug 8, 2023

The giant leap for Mankind: A contact sheet view, half a decade later

Aug 8, 2023

This was originally written for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and published on my Instagram page in 2019. I’ve updated it, and included a few more images.

When thinking about what to post to mark the 50th anniversary of the first steps onto the moon, a series of negatives acquired a few years ago containing 3 missions to the moon including Apollo 11 was the obvious choice. These are not beautiful, detailed images from the surface of the moon we are accustomed to seeing today. They are noisy somewhat abstract views that were simultaneously seen around the world on television screens. It was the first time humanity saw the landscape of the moon, from the moon. To this date, the Apollo 11 moon landing was one of the most watched events of all time with one in six around the world collectively tuned in on Sunday July 20 1969. This was the world’s very first global media event with everyone seeing the same grainy transmission.

Interestingly, more than just views beamed from the moon are present on the film that captured the moment Armstrong took his small step from the lander. Amongst the 12 medium format frames are BBC intertitles, and presenter James Burke, (who you may remember from his white leisure suit in the wonderful 1970s series ‘Connections’). The sequence of images in the roll of film provides us with an essence of what those who were tuned into the BBC, experienced at that moment.

The moon landing was an incredible technological achievement and a defining moment. It was the beginning of the end of the space race, a period responsible for injecting the idea of exploration of the cosmos into the popular imagination. Would Star Trek, Space 1999, or even Star Wars a few years later have existed without it? Looking back from 50 years in the future, the moment feels easy –– That visiting the moon was a natural event of the 20th century. But the Apollo 11 landing could have easily gone wrong. When listening to recordings of the landing, you may notice a pause in response from the NASA controller in Houston when Armstrong announces that they landed in the Sea of Tranquility. They weren’t supposed to be in the Sea of Tranquility, but that’s where they ended up after overshooting the original landing location. There’s a reason why only 12 have ever stepped onto the surface of the moon, and none have made the journey since 1972. Travelling to the moon is a very difficult, dangerous, and expensive thing to do. Would anyone have stepped onto the moon had Apollo 11 ended in disaster? Luck was in their favour that day.

As VCR’s didn’t yet exist, the only way for one to save a televised event in 1969 would have been to photograph or film the screen of a television. The rounded frame of a circa 1969 television screen is visible. It appears the photographer forgot to turn off a lamp in the room, causing a UFO like reflection to hover in the top left of each image. Rather than ruining the image, the intruding reflection is an artefact of the moment by an accident prone individual, reinforcing that this set is not a slick edit but the raw feed. For me, these negatives are a product of the moon landing event that encapsulates a slice of what the world collectively experienced.

The book “Moon Dust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth” by Andrew Smith has an excellent account of the descent to the moon, along with an entertaining account of his quest to interview those very few astronauts (still alive) who had walked on the moon. A great read.