The Kodak Lunar Orbiter Camera

The recent media attention given to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, with its dramatic restored video of Neil Armstrong’s first steps onto the lunar surface, has re-ignited our nation’s interest in extra-terrestrial exploration.

A fascinating and detailed Wikipedia entry about this mission is described here.

But this mission would not have been possible had it not been for a series of lunar surface mapping missions that were made several years before.  It is a story that is not as dramatic as that of the first humans to walk on the moon. But it is a fascinating story, nonetheless, of the way that the entire Apollo program pushed beyond the then perceived limits of technology. And the Eastman Kodak Company was a major player.

Between August of 1965 and August of 1966, five missions of a lunar orbiter module, equipped with a camera, mapped nearly 99% of the moon’s surface. Its objective was to find possible landing sites for Apollo 11 and the subsequent lunar exploration missions.

The mapping camera was the heart of the lunar orbiter module. It was equipped with two lenses; the first was a lower resolution one of 80 mm. The second lens, a 610mm high-resolution lens, was capable of resolving images of 2 meters in size. The exposures were made onto a strip of 70mm film. Yes, FILM. This was, after all, still an analog era. The film was fed through an elaborate transport chain from exposure (at an approximate ASA of 2) to development by a method called bimat (think something akin to Polaroid), then to an analog scanning of the film and its radio transmission to earth where it was rescanned onto film. These filmstrips were then assembled mosaic-like and mounted into frames that registered successive sections of the lunar landscape. There was also a record made onto two inch magnetic tape—but that is another story, one I will describe in another posting. It is the story of “lost” data that should serve as a cautionary tale for those of us who perceive the digital record of our work as somehow being archival.

Seven of these Kodak cameras were actually built, but with sufficient materials available for up to ten. Five, or possibly six, were deployed in the actual mapping missions. The last one now resides in the Technology Collection of the George Eastman House in Rochester. As a parenthesis, I would encourage all of you, if you happen to visit the Eastman House with the intention of seeing the historic photography collection, to make an appointment to study the collection of still and motion picture cameras as well. As I recall from a visit some fifteen years ago, they are sequestered on ranks and ranks of shelves in a large basement room that feels like something out of the final overhead tracking shot of Citizen Kane. There are thousands of “Rosebuds” stored here. This visit will bring the history of photography and motion pictures to life for you in a way that the memory will stick with you forever. Those of you who have ever seen the cameras in the ASC clubhouse will understand how that collection is but an aperitif to the drunken binge of the treasures of the Eastman House.

Please excuse the ruminative aside. I’ll get back to the subject at hand.

Photographs of the Kodak camera built for the lunar orbiter survey reveal what seems to be an amazingly primitive Rube Goldberg contraption. Stripped of the protective insulating housing, the camera module is a concoction of wheels, gears and bulbous glass. A then space age binding material called Velcro  (I kid you not) held parts of it together.  Here are some photos of the rig:


The half side view shows the film transport in detail. The front view shows the two lenses with a defrosting element embedded in the center of the lens in order to prevent fogging from the extreme temperature changes as the module orbits. The last view shows the camera in its protective cocoon as part of the entire satellite.

A video podcast of less than seven minutes features Eastman House Technology Collection curator Todd Gustavson discussing how the Kodak camera performed.

A description of the lunar orbiter camera program is described in more detail here.

The recent AMIA (Association of Moving Image Archivists) symposium held at the Dunn Theater of the AMPAS Pickford Center in Hollywood featured jaw-dropping presentations by Al Sturm and Ralph Sargent of the history of this program as well as the forensic-like work to find and restore its lost images. It is this latter theme I will take up soon along with the recent new photos also taken by a high resolution Kodak digital camera.



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