Book review: ‘Apollo: The Panoramas’ by Mike Constantine

A comprehensive photographic guide to some of space exploration’s most significant missions.

It’s nearly half a century since the first Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, but entrepreneurial writers and publishers continue to find new angles on an old story. This time it’s a very wide angle!

‘Apollo: The Panoramas’ by Mike Constantine (Moonpans, £50/$65 ISBN 9780993373107) does exactly what it says ‘on the tin’ by presenting dozens of panoramic images constructed from original mission photographs. The large format (27x36cm, doubled to 72cm when open) is ideal for panoramic shots.

As the author explains in a section headed ‘panoramic assembly’, the process involves taking a sequence of 70mm-format images – captured by the astronauts with a Hasselblad 500EL and 60mm lens – and stitching them together in Adobe Photoshop. You may have done something similar with your phone and consider this a trivial exercise, but anyone who has attempted to create a seamless, high-resolution panorama in Photoshop knows that a degree of technical and artistic skill is required. There is no doubt that the author of this book, who characterises the process as “many hours of blending”, possesses such skills.

Apollo 16 lunar module pilot Charlie Duke, writing in a Foreword, describes the panoramas as “a great resource that really captures what it actually looked like on the lunar surface” ...and he should know. The photos themselves are fully captioned and many include “exclusive comments” from Apollo astronauts Bean, Mitchell, Duke and Schmitt (from Apollos 12, 14, 16 and 17, respectively). In addition, each mission is illustrated with an EVA or traverse map showing where the featured panoramas were taken. Interestingly, the book also compares the maps with more recent images from Nasa’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter; they show not only the lunar modules and some of the deployed instruments, but also the tracks of astronauts and lunar rovers.

The patchwork of pictures of the Apollo 17 lunar module and rover in the top image was stitched together to create the panoramic image below

Despite the ubiquity of some of the Apollo photos, it is good to be reminded of the stark beauty of this other world, famously dubbed “magnificent desolation” by Buzz Aldrin. Given the quality of some of the original images, it is interesting to note that the astronauts could not see what they were photographing: their chest-mounted cameras were simply pointed at the subject. Nor was it possible to incorporate the automatic modes we now take for granted: the shutter speed was set at 1/250 of a second, says the author, and the astronauts could adjust the aperture according to a simple ‘lighting guide’ – “f/5.6 for objects in shadow, f/8 to f/11 for objects in sunlight”. And there were three settings for focus: “near, medium and far”. Luckily, the astronauts were extremely well trained and, as Alan Bean recalls, “I do not remember even one or two [images] that were not what we had planned to take”.

There are too many incredible images to comment on in detail, but favourites have to be those with engineering hardware on show, especially images with both the lunar module and the lunar rover. Some of them add splashes of colour to an otherwise grey landscape – a graphic illustration of the technology from one world on the surface of another.

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