Arguably the most significant photographs of the 20th century were recorded 50 years ago on a specially prepared Hasselblad camera after the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, Eagle, had successfully landed on the surface of the Moon. The date was, of course, 20 July 1969 and the camera was the Hasselblad Electric Data Camera or HEDC, specifically modified for lunar photography and based on the 500 EL motordriven 6x6cm rollfilm SLR.

The Hasselblad Electric Data camera was modified specifically for photography on the Moon. Photo: Hasselblad.

The HEDC was fitted with a Zeiss Biogon 60mm f5.6 lens – with a polarising filter – and a 70mm film magazine which contained a specially-formulated thin-base Kodak film, allowing for 200 frames with B&W film and 160 with colour transparency stocks. A second camera, the Hasselblad Electric Camera or HEC (also based on the 500EL, and first used on Apollo 8) was used to shoot from inside the lunar module. It was fitted with a Zeiss Planar 80mm f2.8 lens. Incidentally, a third HEC was used on the Apollo 11 mission, but remained aboard the orbiting command module and was used with a Sonnar 250mm f5.6 short telephoto lens.

The Hasselblad Electric Camera was used for space photography from the lunar lander and the orbiter. Photo: Hasselblad.

The HEDC was fitted with a Réseau plate which optically imprinted fixed cross-marks, allowing for photogrammetric measurements to be made from the negatives. The HEDC was painted silver in order stabilise the camera internal temperatures when moving between extreme conditions ranging from -65 degrees Celsius in the shade to over 120 degrees in the sun. The first man to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, carried out all the photography himself on the lunar surface with the HEDC attached to a bracket on his chest.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface on 21 July 1969, photographed by Neil Armstrong with the Hasselblad Electric Data Camera. Photo: NASA.

Hasselblad’s long relationship with NASA dated back to the earlier Mercury program when astronaut Wally Schirra, who owned a 500C, suggested that the Hasselblad camera might be suitable for space photography. NASA subsequently purchased a number of 500Cs and prepared them for the rigours of space by removing the leather coverings, the reflex mirror assembly with its secondary shutter and the focusing screen. The body was repainted matte black to minimise reflections when shooting through the window of the orbiter. A new film magazine was built to allow for 100 frames instead of the usual 12.

The first NASA-modified Hasselblad was blasted into space on 3 October 1962 aboard the Mercury-Atlas 8 rocket and subsequently orbited the earth six times in the Sigma 7 capsule, piloted by Shirra. Photography was one of the mission’s two non-scientific experiments and the camera proved to be a great success, ensuring Hasselblad’s future involvement in NASA space programs through to the Space Shuttle missions from 1981 to 2011.

After Neil Armstrong’s successful shoot on 21 July 1969 – when he exposed three magazines, taking a total of 150 frames – the HEDC was hoisted up to the lunar lander using a line (which was the way it had been lowered down to him). After removing the film magazines from both cameras; the bodies, lenses and accessories (along with a lot of other equipment) were jettisoned to save weight. The succeeding five Apollo missions to land on the Moon (12, 14, 15, 16 and 17) repeated this practice, resulting in 12 very special Hasselblad camera bodies and lenses being left behind.