At Auction: One of the Only Cameras to Ever Make it Back From the Moon

James Irwin’s custom Hasselblad was one of the only cameras to make it back from the Moon… or was it?

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The Hasselblad EDC, the custom camera designed for use on the Moon. Hasselblad

When Apollo astronauts went to the Moon, the cameras they brought with them were custom Hasselblad 500ELs, known as the Hasselblad Electric Data Camera. These cameras had been rigged to be easier to operate in space and to be useable by photographers with stubby space suit fingers.

In almost all cases these Hasselblads were left behind on the surface of the Moon—only the film they shot made it back to Earth, says Wired.

At least one camera body did make it back, though: the one used by James Irwin as part of his Apollo 15 mission. The image library from that mission, showing the photos shot by Irwin and others, is here. But Irwin's camera, now in the hands of an Italian collector, is now set to go to auction on March 21, says Agence France Presse.

AFP and the auction house are saying that Irwin's camera is the only Hasselblad to ever make it back from the Moon. The website Collect Space, however, says that isn't the case:

At least one other, the camera used on the moon by Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard, also came back to Earth.

"They'd like for you to return your camera, so you don't have to bother removing the magazine from it," Mission Control radioed to Shepard just before he hit a golf ball off the moon's surface on Feb. 6, 1971. "You can just put the whole camera in the ETB [Equipment Transfer Bag]."

Collect Space is, actually, pretty skeptical about the whole thing. A recent law, passed in 2012, lets early astronauts sell their souvenirs to collectors. That's only for souvenirs. “But the camera was returned for study, not as a souvenir, so it is not clear how the camera entered private hands,” says Collect Space. The Apollo 15 mission on which Irwin flew, says, is already connected to one story about the private desire for space memorabilia and astronauts' willingness to play along:

The men's return to Earth was marred, some months later, when NASA discovered the crew flew hundreds of unauthorized stamp covers on the mission with intentions to eventually receive money from a private collector.

"We had acted in haste and under terrific pressure from the preflight and postflight schedule, but this didn't excuse us," Irwin later wrote in his biography, "To Rule the Night." However, he pointed out, he refused the money eight months before the scandal broke out publicly.

Collect Space also tracked this camera to a previous auction, where it was billed as only having been to space, not to the lunar surface. It's all a bit confusing, but the gallery is predicting it will be able to sell the camera for $200,000, at least.

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