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This Guy Remastered Photos of Earth Shot by Apollo Astronauts

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Toby Ord was disappointed at the selection of Earth photos available compared to views we have of other planets, so he decided to try his own hand at restoring older Apollo astronaut photos of Earth to reveal more of our planet’s beauty.

It all started when Ord, an Oxford research fellow in philosophy, was struck by the beauty of Saturn photos captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft but couldn’t find comparable photographs of Earth.

“It wasn’t that Earth itself was any less beautiful, but that there were no photographs which did justice to that beauty,” Ord writes. “How could this be?”

He discovered that most Earth photos are either taken too close (e.g. from the ISS in low Earth orbit), or with unrealistic computer-aid compositing, or with the wrong cameras (by spacecraft on scientific rather than photographic missions).

The compositions Ord did like were the photographs shot by NASA astronauts on Apollo missions to the Moon.

“To find truly great photographs of the Earth — portraits of our planet — we have to go back to the 1960s and 70s,” Ord says. “The Apollo program, with its nine journeys to the Moon, is the only time humans have ever been beyond low Earth orbit; the only opportunity they have had to take photographs of the whole Earth. They did not waste it.”

“Apollo 8. The moment humans first saw the whole Earth with their own eyes. Floating in space, the Apollo 8 crew saw the Earth at this unexpected angle, with North to the lower-left. It was taken on the way to the Moon, from a distance of 27,000 km.”

Those astronauts were equipped by NASA with high-end camera equipment, including Hasselblad cameras, Zeiss lenses, and 70mm Kodak Ektachrome film.

Read also: There are 12 Hasselblad Cameras on the Surface of the Moon

Unfortunately, the Apollo photos found in NASA’s archives aren’t up to par with the technical quality of modern digital photography.

“Each available image was marred by low resolution, bad image compression, blown-out highlights, or washed out colors,” Ord writes. “These were the defining photographs of our time, the best representations of our fragile Earth — but they were neglected; mistreated.”

Upon learning that many raw film scans are available to the public online, Ord decided to try his own hand at remastering the photos.

“To my lasting surprise, the preliminary adjustments for levels and white balance saw it come to life — already surpassing the reproduction used on Wikipedia,” he says.

An unprocessed scan (left) and Ord’s restored version (right).

Ord has since scoured over 18,000 Apollo photos of Earth to find every good shot of the whole planet. And over “many long evenings,” he has painstakingly worked to create new digitally restored versions for the world’s eyes.

“Apollo 11. After 22 hours on the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin return to orbit aboard the ascent stage of the Lunar Module, ready to join Michael Collins and begin the long journey home. Collins, who remained in orbit on the Command Module, is behind the lens. Every other human is in front of it.”
“Apollo 12. As Apollo 12 slips out of the Earth’s shadow, and the eclipse comes to an end. The astronauts again see the Sun shine out brilliantly from behind the Earth’s silhouette. In just four more hours, they would be splashing down into the Pacific Ocean.”

The goal was to be true to Earth and the original photos, and Ord did edits that included removing dust/scratches, removing crosshairs, adjusting black points, adjusting contrast, and setting white balance (based on clouds or ice).

“I decided my role wasn’t to create startling new interpretations of the images—to make my own mark—but to be relatively conservative and stay as true as I could to what the scene would have looked like, and what the photographer was trying to capture,” Ord tells My Modern Met.

“Apollo 11. Taken by the Apollo 11 crew on their way home. In this image, North is down. Near the centre is the southern tip of Africa, pointing upwards. Sunlight glints off wetlands and rivers.”
“Apollo 8 — ‘Earthrise’. One of the most famous photographs of all time, it was taken by Bill Anders and is the first color earthrise. It is displayed here it is in its original orientation, with North up. We can see night falling across Africa and clouds over Europe and the Americas. Because it was one of the first photographs of Earth in public circulation and highlighted its fragility by contrast with the barren lunar surface, Earthrise became an environmentalist icon.”
“Apollo 11. A view of Earth from the Lunar Module before it separated and descended to the lunar surface. Taken by Buzz Aldrin.”
“A haunting image of a crescent Earth surrounded by reflections from the Lunar Module, where the crew of Apollo 13 had been taking shelter since the accident. Parts of Asia and the Indian Ocean can just be made out in what is almost indistinguishable from a crescent Moon. They were 80,000 km and seven hours away from safety.”
“Apollo 14. A dramatic crescent earthrise, in black and white. Taken by the crew of Apollo 14 as they came around the far side of the Moon for the final time before heading home. A thin slice of the Pacific Ocean is all that is visible.”
“Apollo 13. A study in blue and white. We can see half the Earth, with ice in the Arctic and clouds over the Pacific. Taken by the crew of Apollo 13 as they left the Earth on their ill-fated journey to the Moon. This was two days before the explosion.”
“Apollo 12. A slender crescent Earth, taken by the crew of Apollo 12 on their way home. North is up. A sliver of the Pacific Ocean is visible, with clouds showing the pink and orange of sunset.”
“Apollo 12. An exceptionally slender crescent Earth, taken by the crew of Apollo 12 on their way home. The glare of the sun from the top-left has washed out the image, but granted it an ethereal quality.”
“Apollo 14. A crescent Earth, glowing amidst the reflections from the Command Module’s window. Taken by the crew of Apollo 14 on their way home.”
“Apollo 17. A surreal crescent earthrise. Taken by the crew of Apollo 17, a day after they had reunited in lunar orbit. They would have no idea that it would be more than fifty years before someone else will again touch the Moon.”
“Apollo 17 — ‘The Blue Marble’. One of the most famous photographs ever taken. The crew of Apollo 17 captured this image of the Earth five hours after liftoff—29,000 km into their journey to the Moon.”

“While I’m very pleased with how these restorations turned out, they are not the last word; not the definitive images,” Ord writes. “There are also many people who could do a better job of the restoration. I’m a passionate amateur and was proud to be able to play a part, but there are professionals whose technical skills and judgment far surpass my own. […]

“Finally, and most importantly, new photographs will be taken. Since I began this project, a new mission to the Moon has been confirmed, planned for 2024. The photography of the Artemis program should rival — or even surpass — that of the Apollo program. I can’t wait.”

You can find a larger selection of Ord’s remastered Apollo photos on his website.


Image credits: All photographs by NASA and edited by Toby Ord. Captions by Toby Ord.

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