Like many, i was eagerly anticipating the launch of the new NASA SLS rocket over the weekend, the rocket that will eventually carry a new batch of astronauts to the moon (doubtless in glorious high definition), but alas, it was not to be. I found out about the launch postponement via Twitter, whilst listening to music in a field.
The original Apollo programme, in the 1960’s, was distinguished from earlier forms of exploration by the depth, synchronicity, and range, of it’s own documentation: live TV streaming the key moments of the voyage, a full range of both colour, and black & white photography, shaky home movies shot from the surface of the moon. Apollo had it all. You can read the full mission radio transcripts, if you have the time, or listen to the audio to get close the original conversations (and tensions). There was even a contemporary Twitter account ‘live’ recasting the Apollo 11 mission word for word for the 50th anniversary.
For most of us today, the connection with Apollo, with that golden age of Space Exploration, is visual: the iconic imagery.
Indeed, one of the bands i was listening to referenced the ‘blue marble’, itself a term used by the Apollo 17 astronauts to describe the first images of the earth seen from space.
In his new book, ‘Apollo Remastered’, author and digital photo restoration specialist Andy Saunders has been given access to the original NASA archives, and used innovative modern techniques to tease a new story out of the original film.
I say ‘tease it out’, because his work is not an act of original creation, but rather a fascinating unearthing, more akin to archaeology. Through the digital tools he is able to retell the story, stripping back the noise to reveal the narrative underneath.
The book is an incredible collection of images, some familiar, but with new detail. For me some of the most fascinating images are those where reflections are revealed: what were previously flat surfaces or dark patches now reveal glimpses of faces and the interiors of the space craft.
Photos are fascinating: both through the technologies of their creation, but also the semantics of framing, they tell a story. But it’s only a story, not an absolute truth. None of Saunders work is the result of AI: these are not recreations, but perhaps rather rebirths.
In ‘To the Moon and Back’, i talked about Apollo through the lens of storytelling – one of the first great synchronous global stories, which, along with the Vietnam War photography and films had a pivotal impact on American culture and sense of self. Perhaps one reason why NASA delayed the SLS launch: an explosion on the pad would itself provide a narrative around contemporary culture.
In work on culture we can usefully explore not just stories, but also artefacts and rituals, each of which shape, reinforce, and frame the stories of culture.
So the images of Apollo shape our stories, hold our stories, and to a degree constrain our stories (to history, to a specific context, to a time). This reworking of the images, the evolution of the artefact in some senses changes the story. Perhaps making it more accessible, more human.
For me, this work (and it sure looks like a monumental body of work) surfs the line between creative storytelling and technical mastery. The book itself i a beautiful artefact. Quite something.