Vintage NASA photography is now more in demand than ever. However, authenticity of these prints is not a science, as they are not exact replicas of the missions they represent. You will find below a summary of an article found on Invention and tech and sent to me yesterday by a fellow customer.
It's back again, the Space Race. This time it's not a race between nations, but rather between collectors who want to collect vintage NASA photos. The public's interest in NASA memorabilia is on the rise in recent years. Photographic prints of the Apollo, Mercury and Gemini missions are the most sought-after among a wide range of collectibles. One print of Apollo 11's moon man has sold for over $10,000. Nearly every major auction house has held an "vintage space photography" type of auction at one time or another since 2015. It seems that the hammer price is higher for rarer photographs.
What assurance can a collector have that the photograph he or she purchased is worth its value? These prints, as well as the images in them, are not new. They have been around for decades. The supply of photographs from the Apollo missions was plentiful in the wake of them. NASA distributed them to anyone who requested them, whether it was a Dutch newspaper or a Massachusetts schoolteacher. Many of the most sought-after prints were made right after the mission ended. However, other prints on the market (that depict the same image) were available years later. If authenticity is what determines value (it itself depends on provenance or origin), how can you tell which prints were made after the mission ended from a reproduction made many years later?
It is not easy to authenticate a photograph, unlike the missions. It is difficult to verify a photograph because of gaps in the records, lost archives and the fact that many of the original NASA employees have died. Each photograph can be examined closely to reveal clues that tell a story. These clues, such as the serial number of the photograph (often called "Red Letters" as if it were foreboding), the color of the ink used to print that serial number; the type and paper on which the image was printed; or an innocuous pencil marking -- all help to explain how that particular photographic prints got from a 1960s printer into the hands of a space enthusiast.
NASA Photography: The Birth
All NASA photography was created at Building 8 at Houston's Johnson Space Center. The Photography Technology Lab (the "PTL") was located in Building 8. Original mission films were sent immediately after the mission ended to the PTL. Although Building 8 is a simple white office building, it was home to the Photography Technology Lab (the "PTL"), which was a marvellous example of modern science at its time. John W. Holland was NASA's Chief of Technical Laboratory Branch Photographic Division Office of Technical and Engineering services. The PTL was a state-of the-art photography center that was unmatched anywhere in the world.
The PTL was capable of processing film at a tremendous speed, details of which will be discussed in a moment. However, there were many bespoke features that made sure mission film safety, which was NASA's highest priority. To avoid shrinkage or expansion of the original mission film during processing, the humidity in the lab was controlled.
Holland and Richard Underwood, who are key PTL personnel such as Terry Slezak and Terry Slezak were also present at the mission's end. Holland and Brinkmann understood the significance of mission film and the tangible proof that it was successful. NASA was naturally eager to see the photos at the end of mission. The process of creating a photograph from actual film was not without risks. The traditional process of taking photographs is best described as a series chemical reactions that involves the element silver and one halogen (chemistry enthusiasts know to look for them in the second-to last column of the periodic table). There are many things that can go wrong in development. For example, improper exposure to light or incorrect immersion of negatives into darkroom chemicals. There is no way to make it right if you make a mistake when developing film.
The mission film was also difficult to manage because it was only 2.5 mils thick. This was much thinner than traditional film which was between 5 to 7 mils thick. Because of the spacecraft's limited storage space, thin film took up 40% more space and allowed for 40% more photographs per role. The risk of making a mistake in the developing process was so great that Eastman Kodak Company ("Kodak") did not want to be responsible for processing the mission film into negatives. This resulted in the PTL being responsible, as well as employees such Holland and Brinkmann.
NASA knew this was a rare opportunity and trained its photographers to perfect the process. Holland later noted that NASA's photographers worked seven days a weeks, twelve hours per day, in preparation for the Apollo missions. To practice every possible scenario in developing the negatives from the original film, they worked in total darkness. They did not overlook any safety precautions (film safety).
The film was taken out of the cameras to be decontaminated once it arrived. It was Apollo 15 that declared the Moon dead, ending the need to decontaminate or quarantine. Terry Slezak, NASA photographer, explained that the Apollo 11 film was decontaminated after it was interleaved with special paper. This allowed gas to flow around the film and through it. The film was then placed in a canister that was still light-baffled and was put into an autoclave. There, ethylene oxide gas was used for the final decontamination. The film was then taken to the laboratory for further processing.
From Processing to the Final Product
Kodak engineered mission film for space use, but the film's return journey to Earth after it was returned is just as important. The film's journey around the PTL is not documented in the JSC archives. All is not lost. There are still a few witnesses who can help us reconstruct the past.
The mission film was sold and marketed under the brand "Ektachrome" by Kodak. The PTL developed it by projecting the film onto a 70mm piece internegative film. NASA was able to create a set of master internegatives from the original film that was too fragile and historic to be handled often. The "master" internegatives were then duplicated by the PTL into additional copies. These duplicate internegatives, now twice removed from their originals, were used to print images onto photographic paper.
The internegative was used by the PTL to create a intermediate between the Moon image and the final print that collectors are now interested in. Shanebrook estimates that NASA produced approximately 100 internegative copies. These were shared with people or companies involved in the development of the mission. Kodak was a dedicated supplier to NASA and received an internegative copy the Apollo 11 images. Shanebrook used it in 1969 to make several prints.
NASA had accurate internegative copies and was ready to share prints of those negatives with anyone who asked. NASA's PTL was eager to deploy several photo finishing machines in anticipation of high demand. When compared to our modern understanding of "something that prints," the phrase "photographic printing" is somewhat misleading. In 1960s parlance, the term "photographic printer” was simply a machine that projected an image from a negative onto paper. The exposed paper was then fed to a separate machine, which dipped it into a variety of darkroom chemicals. This revealed the image through the magic and magic of chemistry. NASA suggests that the PTL used a Kodak Color Printer Model 5S-4 or something similar.
The operation of the Kodak 5-S printer would have been in complete darkness, with only red lights protecting against accidental exposure. There are many human factors that affect the quality of your prints, including the intensity of the lamps used in order to achieve the right color balance. Operator skill will determine the quality of the printed images. Operators could use Kodak's technology to run a roll undeveloped film through a light, where it was exposed the negative. After that, the roll could be spooled in the take-up machine. This meant that the paper was fed through a machine as a roll and not as a sheet during most of the 1960s.
This distinction is crucial when authenticating NASA photos. Printing on a roll of paper is more efficient than printing individual sheets. A small pencil led marked the back of each sheet of paper as it passed through the printer. It is very small and only 1/16th inch wide, 3/16ths of an in length and located within 1/4th inch of the edge of paper. The pencil mark was detected by a third machine, which used a photocell as a sensor to determine where to cut. This avoided human error in the cut phase, and maintained the same appearance from print to print.
The demand for vintage NASA photos has increased in recent years. However, it is important to be able distinguish between a genuine NASA print and a reproduction. Many photographs are sold as being very close to the actual mission event. However, it is impossible to determine if a print was created in 1969 or 1972 without independent provenance. The print's characteristics (paper, serial number, etc.) didn't change over this period.
NASA photography is, in the end, a tangible record of our journey into the unknown and the final frontier. These remarkable achievements, like Ed White's weightlessness at S-65-30433 and Neil and Buzz standing on foreign celestial bodies in AS11-40-55903 are possible only because of humankind's creativity, innovation, and curiosity. In Jennifer K. Levasseur's book, T through Astronaut Eyes, Photographing Early Human Spaceflight, Jennifer K. Levasseur writes, "People could feel like they were part of a historic moment that very few Americans have experienced: circling Earth or Moon in spacecraft barley bigger than a midsize sedan."
These original images are now being preserved to commemorate a small portion of American history and honor the people who made them possible.