Nearly 50 years have passed since the Apollo programme first delivered astronauts to the surface of the Moon.
In that time, millions of words have been written about that mission, and the pictures the astronauts and cosmonauts captured on the race to our nearest neighbour have become iconic images.
But there’s been one problem for space enthusiasts poring over the images captured in orbit and on the lifeless lunar surface – they only reveal its beauty in two dimensions. As spectacular as they are, they can only do so much to make you feel like you’re there.
But amid the thousands of photos taken on Nasa's space missions, some of the images created were intended to make the viewer feel they were right there - stereo photographs that have only now come to light, thanks to a new book masterminded by Queen's Brian May.
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He might be best known for his day job, playing guitar in one of the world’s biggest rock bands, but May also holds a doctorate in astrophysics and is a lifelong fan of stereo photography, a photographic process which creates 3D images from prints or digital images.
May has now combined his two his biggest passions to create a book that charts the Soviet-American race to our nearest neighbour in all its 3D glory, written with David Eicher.
The book includes some of the space race's most iconic images, such as Ed White's first spacewalk for the US in 1965 (Credit: London Stereoscopic Company)
BBC Future visited May at the headquarters of his publishing company, the London Stereoscopic Company (LSC), located down a leafy country lane about 30 minutes west of London. Here, the 71-year-old guitarist has accumulated a huge collection of stereo images stretching back to Victorian times, as well as cameras and the various optical viewers used to look at the images. It’s a personal museum to the 3D image, all sparked by a happy childhood accident which instilled a lifelong love of stereo photography.
When May was seven, he found a card inside a cereal packet, printed with two images side-by-side. For a few pennies, he could buy a stereo viewer that would transform them into three dimensions. May bought the viewer and the image of a hippo opening its massive maw was revealed in a more realistic way than he had experienced before. It clearly had an effect; ever since May has been obsessed with stereography, or stereoscopy, as the Victorians knew it. He still has the card, the viewer, and even the envelope it came in. When he bought his first camera – a cheap model bought from Woolworths – he learned how to make stereo images with it. He shows the BBC Future team his first stereo image, of his father redecorating the kitchen in his childhood home, some 60 years ago.
No one had ever done a 3D book on the whole Apollo history and we thought ‘Can we do it, is there enough material? – Brian May
The LSC has already published several books about 3D photography, but May says this is their most ambitious yet.
“The Mission Moon book came about because we’re all kind of nuts about the Moon shot, and it all seems like yesterday to us old people. It’s 50 years ago – incredible,” he says.
“No one had ever done a 3D book on the whole Apollo history and we thought ‘Can we do it, is there enough material?’. So my good friend Claudia Manzoni, who spends her whole life trawling through Nasa archives, gradually sifted through and found images which looked promising.”
Back in the heyday of film, around the same time as the space race, there were special 3D cameras made by a number of companies. They’re a distinctive design, usually having three lens at the front; one for the viewfinder, and two that take the images, one slightly after the other. It’s a process that has fallen out of favour somewhat since computer graphics, but May has used them so long he’s well-versed in explaining the principle.
How stereo photos are taken in space
Brian May tells BBC Future how the stereo images are created
“3D is all about getting two views… we have two eyes, and the reason we see things in wonderful glorious 3D around us every second of the day is our brain puts these two slightly different pictures of the Universe together and makes some kind of depth map in our brains. It is something really mysterious and incredible, you can’t quite get your hands on it because actually it’s happening in your brain the whole time.
“What you’re trying to do in 3D photography is to recreate that effect, so you take a picture from here and a picture from here, and you make sure that this picture goes to this eye, and this picture goes to that eye.
The astronauts didn’t take stereo cameras up with them, but they were trained in a rudimentary stereo photography method which meant their normal photographs could easily be turned into 3D images.
While his mates are the first men on the Moon, he’s circling and taking pictures of the craters on the far side of the Moon – he had great presence of mind - Brian May
“Very often they were too busy to remember it and practice it,” May says. “But they were taught to do the ‘cha-cha’ thing – take a picture here and a picture there and eventually it became a 3D picture. Occasionally you’re lucky enough to find one of those.
“You also get someone like Michael Collins, [Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s crewmate on the Apollo 11 mission] while his mates are the first men on the Moon, he’s circling and taking pictures of the craters on the far side of the Moon – he had great presence of mind.
“Recently we spoke to him and asked him if he did it on purpose and he said, ‘Actually no’. He’s deliberately taken the photographs, but he’s not aware of their stereoscopic visibilities.”
The stereo images like this one become 3D when viewed through the Owl (Credit: London Stereoscopic Company)
Finding the images was one thing – then May and his team had to process the images so that they would work in 3D.
“For me it’s a passion, I’m completely geeky where this is concerned so if we’re on tour with Queen I’ll be back in the hotel at 3am trying to put two of these images together that Claudia has sent me and make them work as a 3D. That’s what you see in the book.
“I’m not the first person to make 3D pictures in this way but I think we are the most persistent… we’ve got something like 200 stereo pictures in the book, and they all work.”
May can add inventor to his long list of achievements, as well. At the back of each copy of the book is his patented Owl stereoscopic viewer, a pair of plastic lenses that help create the 3D effect. The Owl is the result of May collecting viewers since the early days of Queen, and combining the best bits of various designs.
“If you look at any pair of 3D images in here… you just take a moment to allow it to focus and your eyes to relax and… wow! You see this thing in 3D. We were able, in some cases, to go into movie films. For instance, we’ve got a movie of Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, and he’s not got a stereo camera per se, but he does have a video camera, and he’s rotating.” The image, from Leonov’s haunting short film of him floating outside the Soviet Voskhod 2 spacecraft in 1965, the letters (USSR in Cyrillic) emblazoned on his helmet.
The book brings a new dimension to some of the most familiar images of the space race, such as Neil Armstrong's portrait of Buzz Aldrin (Credit: London Stereoscopic Company)
“For me, it’s a nice coming together,” says May. “It is stereoscopic work, and it’s also astrophysics and it’s astronautics, and to bring them together is great. It wasn’t on my own, we have a great team. David Eicher wrote the text, he’s a wonderful writer and editor-in-chief of Astronomy magazine, and as a team we put this together.
“I’m very proud of this book, I think it’s one of the most beautiful we’ve managed to make, we’re quite a way down the line with making stereo books, I think this is the sixth we’ve done. A lot of them have been classic 3D, Victorian 3D, which I love but it’s the same principle. And this, if anything, brings Victorian 3D technique into the 21st Century.
“The guy who wrote our afterword – Jim Lovell [Apollo 13 crew member] – said this is the closest you can to feeling like you’re there.”
The book also looks at the achievements in space since the height of the Cold War (Credit: London Stereoscopic Company)
No story about the race to the Moon is complete without mentioning the day that humanity first placed a foot on the lunar surface. Unsurprisingly, May can remember exactly where he was when it happened.
“I will never forget it. I think we’re all like this, we all remember where we were when something that affects us deeply happens. And I remember exactly where we were, I was down in Cornwall with Rog, our drummer, in the very early days of Queen… And we were at his mum’s house, clustered around this tiny little TV screen, and we all watched it. It seemed like the most incredible thing ever. And to me it still seems fresh and new and exciting. But I’m 50 years older.”
I was lucky enough to spend time with Neil Armstrong, and I wish I’d appreciated it more at the time – Brian May
Most of us will only know Armstrong, who died in 2012, from that disembodied voice as he stepped onto the Moon’s surface, and the photographs, but May has a more personal connection to him.
“I was lucky enough to spend time with Neil Armstrong, and I wish I’d appreciated it more at the time,” he says. “I had some time on my own with him having breakfast on top of the caldera at La Palma, and we talked about the world and its problems. We didn’t talk too much about what he’d done on the Moon. But I figured at the time everybody talks to him about that. But I wish I had known then what I know now, I’d have asked him better questions.”