Space & Innovation

Spectacular Apollo Photos Inspired Moon Science

How pretty pictures from the Apollo landings helped NASA do real science on the moon.

Apollo has never looked better. More than 40 years after the astronauts explored the surface, two photo projects are showing us the moon as only a handful of people has seen before.

The Project Apollo Archive

uploaded thousands of scanned NASA images to Flickr. Also, a new crowdfunded book called "

Apollo: The Panoramas

" easily exceeded its initial goal and will begin shipping hardcover books next year. This is some of the science these photos helped NASA perform.

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Some rumors circulated in the late 1960s that the first Apollo astronauts to land on the moon may very well sink into the surface. That wasn't really the worry for NASA during Apollo 11; after all, the Surveyor 3 (U.S.) and Luna 9 (Soviet) spacecraft had arrived safely, among others, with little evidence of subsidence. But NASA was interested in how well the lunar module performed when astronauts arrived on the surface. In pictures, NASA surveyed information such as how far the feet penetrated into the surface, and how much of a divot the engine exhaust left behind.

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NASA was also interested in knowing how the investigators' experiments worked on the surface. Some of the experiments were used multiple times in missions, such as the foil solar wind composition collector seen here from Apollo 12. By asking the astronauts and looking at pictures of the deployed experiments, the investigators could make improvements from mission to mission to better data collection or other aspects of the mission.

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Without the lunar rover, the Apollo missions would have had severely limited surface operations. The rovers could carry equipment, samples and astronauts for many miles across the surface, allowing for more intensive investigations. NASA took care to make sure the astronauts observed a "walkback limit", just in case the rover broke down and the crew had to hike back to the lunar lander.

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As the Apollo program matured, the astronauts received advanced training in geology so they could better make choices about their work on the surface. This allowed them to select rocks representative of the environment, and to give detailed descriptions to Mission Control about their surroundings that could be recorded for the geology team. As a part of that, Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott did a brief survey of the landscape before even setting foot, perched inside the lunar lander and sticking his torso outside to take pictures and relay information to NASA.

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Where were the astronauts on the surface of the moon? That was no trivial question after astronauts began using rovers to get miles away from their landing site -- this shot from Apollo 16 gives you a taste. NASA closely monitored the astronauts' discussions, looking at television cameras and trying to plot their best estimates of the crew's location on orbital maps. Later on, when the pictures were developed, NASA and others looked at them to pin down where the astronauts physically were.

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While the astronauts described their surroundings as best as possible, NASA had a special color tool available to "calibrate" the images on the moon to their true color. An identical copy of this scale was on Earth, making it possible to do comparisons from afar as to what color the moon's regolith (soil) really was. That turned out to be very important on Apollo 17, when the astronauts found what they thought was orange regolith in an otherwise greytone landscape. They were right; it was the tint of volcanic glass.

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