It started with a single photo.
Cameras on a V-2 rocket launched from the New Mexico desert captured a grainy, black-and-white depiction of Earth on October 24, 1946—years before the Soviet Union sparked the space race by propelling Sputnik into orbit.
The images revealed only a portion of our planet, split distinctly into two parts: a slice of the Earth’s surface, rendered in shades of grey, on the lower right; the vast blackness of infinite space on the top left.
In the six decades that have passed, countless numbers of similar images have been captured, as cameras move further and further into the abyss. Slowly, the entire globe came into focus and lit up with color.
Soon, astronauts were captured floating freely in space and landing on the moon. There’s even the very first space selfie, captured by Buzz Aldrin in 1966.
Now, these and almost 700 other rare and vintage images are going on display and up for auction at Bloomsbury London, representing “the largest sale of NASA photographs in the world ever,” as described to The Daily Beast by a representative at the auction house.
The expansive assortment, currently owned by a single collector, is comprised of some of the best moments from the early days of space exploration and is estimated at well over $1 million.
But the collection, titled From the Earth to the Moon, are more than just snapshots, Sarah Wheeler, head of photographs at Bloomsbury Auctions, described in a press release. “Many are simply sublime … when a few men went to the unknown to bring back awe-inspiring pictures.” The first image of an Earthrise over the lunar horizon, for instance, “changed Man’s relationship with the cosmos forever.”
John Glenn was the man who forged the path for future space photographers. Not only was he the first American to enter Earth’s orbit, but he was also the first to carry a camera into space.
While the photo he took is only slightly better than the first, it is far more apparent of what’s in view. Color shapes land masses and clouds, delineating the vast oceans from endless space.
Earth’s magnificent beauty is brought to greater detail with images of Edward White on his Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA). Tethered to the space ship, White floats weightlessly in the foreground while a stunning, marble-colored Earth appears in the distance—its colors brighter than ever before.
Captured by James McDivitt on June 3, 1965, this act of operating outside of the spacecraft propelled White to become the first American to walk in space just fifty years ago.
It is unclear how the unidentified, non-American owner of the photographs made the acquisitions, but one thing is for sure: the vintage photos are rare. Many have only been viewed by a handful of people.
According to the catalogue, NASA would only release a limited number of photographs to the public after each mission. The rest were kept locked away at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, where accredited researchers were the only ones allowed access.
A series of mosaics taken by Apollo astronauts, for instance, make this collection virtually unique. The multiple images of the moon’s surface were pieced together to form a panoramic lunar landscape, providing a detailed viewpoint for scientists to study.
The images proved extremely difficult to produce, given the astronauts’ movement being impaired by their spacesuits and their balance altered by a zero gravity environment.
Images of this type, for the most part, have never appeared at auction or to the general public before.
“It is incredible to realize that many photographs in this auction were unknown to the general public for decades,” Wheeler said. It wasn’t until NASA began putting their complete photographic archive online that many of them were rediscovered.
Such as the only clear photograph of Neil Armstrong from his Apollo 11 mission in 1969.
For almost twenty years images of Armstrong’s lunar touchdown was represented by grainy snapshots from television cameras. Instead, a photo of Buzz Aldrin taken by Armstrong was the closest on-hand account available.
The image is crystal clear. Armstrong in his white, bulky spacesuit and shiny, polarized visor plants a white flag outside the lunar lander. A sequence of shots capture Aldrin leaving the craft step by step before making his own marks on the surface. A sole footprint is seen in a final shot.
Throughout his collecting, the owner began “finding it increasingly difficult to add to the collection,” according to a representative at Bloomsbury London, “because these things of significant quality are becoming more and more difficult to find.” The hunt was part of the thrill and he believed the collection was effectively complete.
So while he has decided to sell (and hopefully has his sights set on the recently discovered Apollo 11 artifacts discovered in Armstrong’s home), the rest of us are able to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Images from the From Earth To Moon auction will be on display at Bloomsbury Auction London, 24 Maddox Street, from February 22-26.