NASA’s famous Apollo 13 mission was launched 50 years ago, and on April 14, the oxygen tank on the service module exploded. As you no doubt know, the mission’s moon landing was canceled after the explosion, leaving the three astronauts in a frenzied battle with Mission Control to save their lives. Apollo 13 inspired an award-winning 1995 film of the same name starring Tom Hanks as Commander Jim Lovell.
At Ars, we’ve documented aspects of the mission in great detail, placing it in the broader context of the Apollo program, as well as going very deep into what exactly happened during the mission. For this story we have a special treat: newly remastered images selected from 70mm Hasselblad photos and stacked frames from 16mm film.
These images were processed and shared with Ars by Andy Saunders, a property developer and semi-professional photographer in Northern England who is an Apollo enthusiast. In recent years, he has increasingly delved into the Apollo archive to extract new details from images and film. (A larger version of the damaged Apollo 13 service module can be seen here.)
Andy the artist
Saunders developed a love for the moon as a child with the gift of a telescope. As he looked at the gray companion, he wondered what it would be like to visit there. After learning about the Apollo program, he immersed himself in discovering more about the astronauts and the rockets and spacecraft. Later in life (he is now 45 years old), Saunders thought there might be a way to bring the Apollo program back to life.
He especially wanted to find more images of Neil Armstrong on the moon. (Armstrong had the camera, so most of the images are from Buzz Aldrin). When Saunders reviewed blurry 16mm images captured by Aldrin from the lunar module that showed Armstrong stepping toward the moon, he found that three of the images showed some of Armstrong’s face. He stacked the three images on top of each other to create a photo that shows Armstrong’s face at the historic moment.
“For me, it was almost like being there for real and going back in time to join them,” Saunders said. “Especially when the clearer images come out. With the Armstrong image, it almost felt like I was behind the camera, in the lunar module. At that point, only me and Buzz Aldrin had really seen this.” Saunders was hooked.
Astronauts took about 20,000 pictures with Hasselblad cameras during the Apollo program and they are kept in a vault at the Johnson Space Center. The space agency will periodically rescan this film and release new versions of the images. Recently, Saunders said, the space agency released new 1.3GB raw versions of each image, an upgrade from the previous 10MB JPEG versions. By using photo editing tools, Saunders has been able to push the processing of these images harder to bring out more detail in photos that were once set aside as too blurry or otherwise uninteresting.
A second technique involves stacking images from 16mm video film, often captured by astronauts hovering in the command module with a handheld camera. In every frame, Saunders said, there is signal and noise. The sound is completely random, so it will spread from one frame to another. But the signal in each frame will be more or less the same. Therefore, in slow-moving video, there are multiple frames representing the same scene. By “stacking” these frames, the signal comes through while allowing the noise to be averaged out. This increase in signal-to-noise ratio provides a clearer and more detailed scene.
Saunders sometimes does this by hand and sometimes uses freeware used by astronomy photographers. More frames lead to better images. Saunders said he processed Apollo images from as many as 300 stacked frames. “It’s time-consuming and complex work,” Saunders says. “But this is such an important film. If the general public gets to see more of this, it will be worth it.”
While working on Apollo 13 footage, Saunders said he noticed how calm Lovell and the other two crew members, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, appear. Much of the film he was working on was shot in the lunar module, after the oxygen tank exploded. The crew was exhausted, it was cold and the astronauts were in the most dire situations. And yet they seemed in a good mood. “Those are test pilots for you, I guess,” Saunders said.