On December 21, 1968 Apollo 8 was the first manned expedition in the entire space program that left the Earth's orbit and traveled toward the Moon. The crew's mission was to orbit the Moon and identify suitable sites for a future lunar landing. During lunar orbit, the astronauts used ZEISS camera lenses, a Planar 2.8/80 and a Sonnar 5.6/250, to photograph the Moon’s surface. On December 24, 1968, as the crew was beginning their fourth lunar orbit and the spacecraft emerged from the dark side of the Moon, the astronauts were the first human beings to behold the Earth rising above the lunar horizon.
The astronauts hurried to capture this stunning image and took the first color photograph of the Earth from the Moon. This image, “Earthrise” became famous the world over adorning the front pages of magazines and newspapers. It preserved the shift in perspective that had so profoundly affected the astronauts. The view from afar of the small beautiful blue planet floating in the darkness of space created a vivid image of a fragile, precious Earth and forever change the world’s perspective of the planet we call home.
Earthrise filmed during the Apollo 8 Mission in 1968. Source: NASA
On July 20, 1969, a collective dream became reality, with a footprint symbolizing this achievement: on that day, man set foot on the Moon for the first time. The limits of what seemed possible were now redefined. People around the world watched this first step and were awed by the images taken from the lunar surface. Today, we continue to be fascinated by the stunning photographs the astronauts brought back to Earth from their missions, especially, those images from the Moon. Camera lenses specially designed by ZEISS for use in space played an important role in capturing the images of these monumental achievements of mankind.
Preparations for the extreme conditions outside of the Earth's atmosphere are critical. All of the technology has to function reliably in spite of zero gravity and temperature fluctuations.
In 1962 a medium format camera with a ZEISS Planar 2.8/80 lens with only a few small modifications was taken on the Mercury-Atlas 8 space mission. The photographs that were brought back were stunning. The image quality with the ZEISS lens in zero gravity was so outstanding that these lenses became part of the astronauts' standard equipment. However, some changes had to be made, especially as concerned ease of use. This prompted closer collaboration with ZEISS, who was tasked with modifying lenses specifically for space travel and developing special systems addressing the extreme conditions of space.
How would the optical properties of lenses change in a vacuum? Would the refractive index be altered in the absence of air molecules between the lenses? What lens materials would have to be replaced because there was the risk they would evaporate? ZEISS conducted thorough research to address these challenges and developed special lenses which the astronauts could even use while wearing the thick gloves of their space suits.
Apollo 11 Data Camera from the ZEISS Museum of Optics
ZEISS designed the Biogon 5.6/60 wide-angle lens specifically for the Moon Landing in 1969. The goal was for the photographs to capture the Moon's surface with excellent edge-to-edge contrast and definition. The camera was also fitted with a glass plate that created visible measurement points on the image during exposure. These markers enabled photogrammetric image evaluations for subsequent size-ratio analyses of objects on the Moon. Manufacturing the 25 crosshatches on the Reseau plate required maximum precision and, together with the lens, these ensured the necessary image quality.
Who developed these impressive ZEISS camera lenses to use in space? Many of the preeminent achievements are thanks in large part to Dr. Erhard Glatzel. In the 1960s, he was one of the leading scientists and managers in the lens design department at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Together with his team, his creations were world-renowned, including the ZEISS Hologon and the ZEISS Planar 0.7/50.
In 1966, the ZEISS Planar 0.7/50 was developed for exploring the dark side of the Moon. The lens was so powerful that it was used later in 1985 to film scenes lit entirely by candlelight in the movie Barry Lyndon. This marked the first time in film history that it was possible to shoot without using artificial light.
Yet the plans for assessing the first photographs of the lunar surface presented new challenges: it needed to be possible to precisely determine the angular distances between objects in all the images. Together with Ludwig Bertele, a well-known optics designer, Glatzel designed the ZEISS Biogon 5.6/60 wide-angle lens specifically for the Apollo 11 mission.
The lens design features a large wide angle, which was absolutely indispensable for taking photographs on the Moon. Thanks to this solution, man's first steps on the Moon have been preserved on film, along with the impressive stillness and the vast, barren landscape. In honor of this accomplishment, Dr. Erhard Glatzel received the Apollo Achievement Award. Under his leadership, ZEISS developed more than 100 lens designs.
The innumerable people involved in the Apollo missions had paved the way to achieving the seemingly impossible by never losing sight of their goal: to leave the first footprint on the Moon. Their courage, passion and ambition continue to inspire us today to improve what we do – just like 50 years ago, when we made a small contribution to something momentous with our technology.