Over forty years ago, a still unknown Walter Schirra entered a Houston photo supply shop and purchased a Hasselblad 500C. The camera was a standard consumer unit with a Planar f/2.8, 80 mm lens. Schirra was a prospective NASA astronaut, one of the brightest and finest pilots of his time, a man with the “right stuff”. Thinking to take his new purchase up on a space shot with him, Schirra stripped the leatherette from the body of the Hasselblad and painted its metal surface black in order to minimize reflections. And when he climbed aboard a Mercury rocket in October 1962, he took his Hasselblad with him. Once in Space, he documented the wonder and awe inspiring beauty he saw around. He took the first space photographs using his consumer model Hasselblad. Thus began the first page in a new chapter in the history of Hasselblad and photography and a long, close, and mutually beneficial cooperation between the giant American space agency and the small Swedish camera manufacturer.
It is interesting to note that when astronaut Walter Schirra brought that first Hasselblad camera into space, it was the only product in the space capsule that had not been custom-built for the mission. The only changes made were that the camera body was stripped down. That camera, sent into space, into a completely alien environment, to take pictures of sights that no human eye had seen before, was sent with the standard lens and film magazine. On returning to earth, it was found that the technical performance of the camera equipment had been just as Victor Hasselblad expected - flawless. NASA had not previously realized or emphasized the importance of photographic documentation of its space shots. After seeing the quality of the photographs that Schirra brought back to earth, however, it was clearly apparent how vital such images were to the project as a whole.
NASA's photo department grew rapidly and became a focal point for a string of experts including photo technicians, laboratory technicians, and America's foremost photo interpreters. Liaisons were also established between a wide range of diverse institutions that were interested in pictures from space for a variety of reasons. NASA’s contact with the Swedish camera manufacturer broadened. In turn, Hasselblad modified and refined its cameras to make them even more suitable for space use, experimenting with different constructions and lenses. For many years, for instance, NASA was determined to cut every superfluous gram from the payload, meaning that the Hasselblads onboard were forced to be as lightweight and lean as absolutely possible. And still maintain the famous Hasselblad quality. And this they did.
A number of different camera models were put to use, all suited for the rigorous demands of space travel. The images that the astronauts took with the boxy, black Hasselblads have become true classics. And the moments they captured were not just inspiring, they were historic. During the Gemini IV mission in 1965, for example, the first space walk was made. And with Hasselblad in hand, James A. McDivitt took a series of pictures of his space-walking colleague, Edward H. White. These pictures were quickly published in leading magazines around the world.
People were surprised over the amazing sharpness of the photos produced by the Hasselblads. And while the layperson might have been impressed by the quality of the final images – and justifiably so – they did not perhaps give too much thought to the demands that space travel made upon the cameras and their reliability. The cameras had to work perfectly under the most trying conditions, over 120° C in the sun, and minus 65° C in the shade. Not to mention the lack of gravity and a myriad of unknown hazards. And the cameras had to work with absolute consistency. Each and every shot was a historic treasure, a once in a lifetime opportunity that would never be able to be captured again. And time and time again, Hasselblad met the challenge. With a range of different cameras.
In 1966, a Hasselblad SWC with a Zeiss Biogon 4.5/38 mm lens was used for the first time on Gemini 9. The Hasselblad 500EL had its space debut aboard Apollo VIII, which made l0 orbits around the Moon on June 1, 1969. And when the Apollo XI actually landed on the Moon, signifying man’s first steps off our own planet and the realization of a dream almost as old as man himself, Hasselblad was there. A Hasselblad 500EL Data Camera with Reseauplate, fitted with a Zeiss Biogon 5.6/60 mm lens, was chosen for the job. The journeys home from the moon made very special demands on what could return regarding weight, etc. So, having fulfilled their mission, a total of thirteen cameras were deemed as an encumbrance and therefore left behind. Only the film magazines containing the precious latent images were brought back. The still shots from that mission are even more widely known than the film sequences. Truly, the list of classic images that came from these missions is almost endless; a single man hovering in the blackness of space, the earth-rise as seen from the moon, the solitary, dramatic shape of man’s first steps on the lunar surface… These images, perhaps more than any of our time, captured the history of mankind in the making.
They stand as a testament to the power of the captured image. And to Hasselblad’s ability to capture them.