Wally Schirra’s space-flown camera to be auctioned
That’s because Schirra bought a Hasselblad 500C camera, a state-of-the-art model used by professional photographers, to take in space. And during his October 1962 flight, Schirra snapped some of the earliest glamour shots of Earth.
“For the first time an astronaut didn’t bring a camera into space just to record data,” Robert Pearlman, one of the country’s leading experts on space collectibles, told the Houston Chronicle. “This camera was brought to capture images of the Earth to share with the world.”
Schirra’s successful modification of an off-the-shelf Hasselblad led to a long relationship between NASA and the Swedish camera company, and nearly all of the iconic Apollo photos from the moon were taken by astronauts using modified Hasselblads.
For these reasons, Pearlman says, there will be considerable excitement around the Nov. 13 auction of Schirra’s Hasselblad, both from space and photo buffs.
The Boston-based auction house, RR Auction, plans to announce the camera auction Tuesday. Although the firm has set a preliminary estimate of $50,000 to $100,000 for the camera, Pearlman, who runs the website CollectSpace, believes the Hasselblad will fetch considerably more, perhaps as much as $1 million.
Schirra was the fifth American astronaut to reach space, flying in a Mercury capsule that made six orbits before splashing into the Pacific Ocean.
During the initial U.S. spaceflights – the first two of which lasted only about 15 minutes – NASA was more concerned about getting its astronauts home in one piece than taking pretty pictures. The space agency, in a race with the Soviet Union, focused on achievements, not public relations activities.
Until Schirra’s flight the astronauts had no cameras, or inexpensive ones. In February 1962, when he became the first American to reach orbit, John Glenn brought a 35mm camera into space. But in terms of photograph quality the Hasselblad, a $450 camera at the time, was a game changer because its wider images captured more of the Earth’s curvature.
“Wally had a personal interest in photography, much more so than some of the other astronauts,” Pearlman said. “He wanted to share the experience with the world.”
Until his death in 2007 Schirra maintained the story that he bought the Hasselblad in a Houston camera store. Although there’s no receipt or official documentation to back that up, Schirra’s account makes sense, Pearlman said.
During the Mercury missions NASA was in the process of moving control of human spaceflight from Langley Research Center in Virginia to Houston. Schirra’s family moved to Houston in 1961, and his flight was the first one in which the city welcomed an astronaut back home.
Schirra’s flight laid the groundwork for future missions during the Gemini program in which astronauts began taking photographs of other astronauts in space, especially outside the capsule during spacewalks.
“The public was fascinated by those pictures of humans in space,” said Jennifer Levasseur, a curator of photography at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
“There’s a realization at NASA that it’s not only important to take pictures of Earth but people too, because that’s what people can relate to.”
That leads directly to the iconic images of Apollo astronauts on the moon, most of whom left their cameras on the lunar surface. To conserve weight for the trip back to Earth they only brought back the camera’s magazine that held the film.
The camera, including the lens, body and film magazine, up for auction has been verified by both packing lists for the Mercury flights as well as photographic documentation. According to Pearlman, the lens being auctioned flew on both Mercury 8, Schirra’s flight, and Mercury 9, which carried Gordon Cooper. There is definitive evidence the camera body flew on Mercury 8, but it’s not certain the camera body flew on Mercury 9. The film magazine attached to the camera flew on Mercury 9.
After his 34-hour flight Cooper kept the camera, and sold it to a private buyer in 1995. Bobby Livingston, an official with the auction house, said he has documents written by Cooper at the time of the sale. Cooper died in 2004.
Until 2012 the legality of astronauts selling their personal artifacts was murky, but that year President Barack Obama signed a law granting NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo crew members “full ownership rights” to the artifacts they kept from more than 40 years ago.
“Articles that flew on Mercury that are in private hands are very rare, and actual equipment flown aboard the vehicles is incredibly rare,” Pearlman said. “For space artifact collectors this represents a very early example of space equipment.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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