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One Giant Leap for Mankind

Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong made history as the first person to set foot on the moon’s surface. In Seeing Science: How Photography Reveals the Universe, author Marvin Heiferman reflects on the significance of the photographs made during the Apollo 11 mission.

Boot prints with camera on the Lunar Surface

Boot prints with camera on the Lunar Surface, 1969
Courtesy NASA

One of the simplest and most haunting photographs ever made was taken on July 20, 1969, when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off Apollo 11’s lunar module and placed his left foot on the surface of the moon. The image was taken by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin. It was Richard Underwood, NASA’s chief of photography in the 1960s, who taught the astronauts how to expose, frame, and focus their shots.

“Your key to immortality,” he said to motivate them, “is in the quality of the photographs and nothing else.” The images they captured—on six missions over the course of a three-year period—ranged from workaday documentation to the extraordinary. And as more astronauts landed on and explored the moon’s surface, the more footsteps they left behind. What was startling and novel the first time it was photographed became a pictorial constant. In 2011, conspiracists who claimed that these pictures were faked were proven wrong when a NASA lunar orbiter captured the sharpest images of landing sites ever taken and revealed the astronauts’ footsteps to still be there—where, it is estimated, they will remain for at least a million years.

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin Deploys Apollo 11 Experiments on the surface of the moon

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin Deploys Apollo 11 Experiments, 1969
Courtesy NASA

Neil Armstrong, An Apollo 11 Hassleblad image of the moon's surface with footprints, 1969

Neil Armstrong, An Apollo 11 Hassleblad image from film magazine40/S–EVA, 1969
Courtesy NASA

Buzz Aldrin, An Apollo 11 Hassleblad image shows an instrument on the moon's surface

Buzz Aldrin, An Apollo 11 Hassleblad image from film magazine 40/S–EVA, 1969
Courtesy NASA

Marvin Heiferman is a writer and curator based in New York. 

Click here to learn more about Seeing Science: How Photography Reveals the Universe.

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