Tuesday, August 20, 2013


It is common knowledge that the Hasselblad had been chosen by NASA for their lunar missions.  Many readers here have wondered if Leica has ever been involved with NASA in any form.  I have written about this topic here in the past, but with renewed efforts by private companies to launch new lunar missions in the not too distant future, I feel this topic warrants new attention.

An interesting, but relatively unknown fact is that NASA initially had chosen the Leica MDa as the camera to be used on their lunar missions.  The MDa was basically identical to the M4 except it had no viewfinder or rangefinder.  The camera was meant for work with microscopes or the Visoflex where a built-in viewfinder and rangefinder was not necessary.

By the time the first lunar missions were planned, the Hasselblad had evolved as the main camera for most missions.  The main reason NASA chose the Leica MDa over the Hasselblad was weight.  Of all the systems for the Apollo missions, one could never be tested because of the low gravity of the moon.  That was the take-off module.  To gain as much of a weight advantage as possible, NASA did everything they could to save weight.  That included the camera equipment.  The Leica MDa with 35mm f/1.4 Summilux was definitely lighter than anything Hasselblad had to offer.  Leitz modified several cameras and lenses to feature large levers to allow camera operation with the bulky gloves of the space suits.  The astronauts chosen for the lunar missions all received extensive training in the use of the camera.

Lunar Leica MDa, an off-the-shelf camera with only few modifications.  These appear to be a soft shutter release, a larger shutter speed dial and a large film rewind knob.  Modification of the lens large levers for the aperture and focus settings, all designed for easy operation with the gloves of the space suits

Yet, as is common knowledge, the Leica never made it to the moon.  The credit goes to one NASA engineer who figured out that the interchangeable film backs for the Hasselblad were lighter than the Leica MDa with its Summilux lens.  Subsequently NASA decided to use the Hasselblad after all.  The Saturn 5 rockets had no problem delivering the payload to the moon.  For the return trip it was subsequently decided to remove the film backs from the cameras and to leave the cameras on the moon where they still reside today.  A total of 12 Hasselblad cameras are sitting in the lunar dust, ready to be picked up.

An intriguing question is if they might be still able to operate properly after all these years in the extremely harsh environment of the lunar surface.

But there are more Leica - NASA connections.  One virtually unknown fact is that NASA also used the Leicafelx SL.  For what purpose is unknown at this point.  I have also found that in 1966, NASA ordered 150 Leica cameras.  Unfortunately it was not stated which cameras they were.

The camera appears to be without visible modifications other than the deeply knurled shutter speed dial to accommodate the heavy gloves of the space suits

Another Leica camera was used in conjunction with a spectrograph.  It was used on the Gemini V and VIII missions. Longer missions during the Gemini program gave astronauts more time for scientific experiments, often created and monitored by other government agencies or academic institutions. Scientists at the U.S. Weather Bureau (now NOAA) created this camera attachment so it could simultaneously record a spectrum and an infrared image to determine cloud heights.

The camera appears to be a Leica M3.  It is unknown if any special modifications were necessary for 
this specialized use

A little known fact is that another Leica M3 accompanied the astronauts on a September 1995 Endeavour space shuttle mission.  As reported by the Houston Chronicle…

NASA Photographer Makes History With Trusty Camera



Odds are that Andrew Patnesky, ""Pat" to his colleagues, has used the vintage Leica camera that swings from his leathery neck like an old dog tag to photograph every American astronaut since Alan Shepard.

It was only fitting that the trademark photo gear with the thick rubber band binding its aging components together accompanied a shuttle crew into orbit recently, something the 75-year-old NASA photographer couldn't do.

"I think the world of that camera," said Patnesky, who shuns more modern gear with the automated features that focus and advance film in favor of the all-manual Leica M3.

"I have other cameras, but they don't measure up," he said. ""Anyone can just go shoot. Anyone can be a photographer, but not everyone can be a photojournalist."

Patnesky fretted over the Leica's absence during its orbital journey aboard the shuttle Endeavour last September. The separation was prolonged for several weeks after the shuttle's return so that the Leica could be unpacked and its journey officially documented.
"I feel kind of naked without it," he joked recently, clearly relieved that the old camera was available once again for his patrols of the space center's astronaut training facilities.

Patnesky staked his claim to the government-owned gear when he spotted it in an equipment closet soon after he joined NASA in 1961. The Johnson Space Center, then known as the Manned Spacecraft Center, was just beginning to take shape in Houston.

"None of the other dingbats would use it. So I said, `Hey, give it to me,' " recalled Patnesky, who spares no one, least of all himself, from his playful verbal digs.

Relying on his 21 years of experience as a photographer with the old U.S. Army Air Corps and then its successor, the Air Force, Patnesky began to chronicle, with the trusty Leica, the personalities who led America to the moon.

In those days, he said, the news media was thirsty for a steady stream of photographs of astronauts as they trained for their Apollo flights in exotic locales, from the Gulf of Mexico where they rehearsed post-splashdown procedures in rough seas to the deserts of Mexico.
During one of the Mexican excursions - it was a training jaunt by Shepard and astronaut Edgar Mitchell to prepare for their Apollo 14 flight - an instructor-geologist challenged Patnesky to descend into a rocky crater for photographs.

As he made his way to the crater floor, Patnesky slipped between the boulders. The Leica's fragile view finder broke away, disappearing between the rocks. Rather than replace the camera, though, he obtained a new view finder and lashed it in place with the first of a succession of wide rubber bands, lending the camera its rag tag character.

To this day Patnesky finds the Leica perfect for his needs, rubber bands and all.
With its precise mechanics and acute optics, the old camera makes little shutter noise and requires no flash when its operator is photographing in the Mission Control Center, the space shuttle simulator or the administrative offices.

"I like to shoot on a noninterference basis," he said. ""That is how you get the best shots."
The strategy has permitted Patnesky to photograph all of the American presidents with astronauts from John Kennedy to Bill Clinton. It allowed him to capture the drama of the Challenger accident as it was reflected in the faces of the personnel in Mission Control, as well as the majesty of Anwar Sadat, the late president of Egypt, during a state visit.

His favorite subjects, though, are the astronauts, from the original Mercury explorers to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first lunar explorers, and now the shuttle astronauts and their recent Russian cosmonaut guests.

"My friendship with the astronauts means a helluva lot to me. I admire those guys for all the hours they put in," said Patnesky. ""One way or another I've photographed every one of them."

One of 10 children born to a Pennsylvania coal mining family, he commutes 110 miles to work each day from a home north of Houston and shares time with his wife in a second home near San Antonio.

Wiry and healthy, Patnesky will log his 56th complete year of government service on Oct. 1. He is coy about his retirement plans.

But he feels so strongly about his association with the astronauts that he is willing to part with his Leica when he leaves NASA. He wants it to go on display at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Fla.

An even earlier Leica camera, a Leica Ig model, was used by astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr., to take the first human-shots, color still photographs of the Earth during his three-orbit mission on February 20, 1962. Glenn's pictures paved the way for future Earth photography experiments on American human spaceflight missions.

Because Glenn was wearing a spacesuit, complete with helmet during his February 20, 1962 mission, he could not get his eye close to a built-in viewfinder.  Therefore NASA selected the high-quality Leica Ig camera that allowed them to attach a customized viewfinder on top. This special attachment featured a suction cup on the back side to allow Glenn to easily place the device against the visor when he was required to keep it down. The viewfinder was removable when Glenn did not need his visor down, and a velcro strip on the rounded top let him manage its location inside the spacecraft.  Glenn found the camera easy to use, in part because he could exploit the advantages of zero-gravity.

"When I needed both hands, I just let go of the camera and it floated there in front of me," he said in his later memoir.

The 1957 Leica Ig was the last Leica screwmount model made, with production ending in 1963.  It was the successor to the If and is the only screwmount camera with the word 'Leica' engraved on the front of the camera. This camera had the same profile as the IIIg but without the viewfinder/rangefinder incorporated into the top.  As with both the Ic and If there were two accessory shoes mounted for attaching a separate viewfinder and rangefinder. The rewind knob was partially recessed into the top plate.  As with the Ic and the If, the Ig was intended for scientific or Visoflex use.

I will keep on researching the Leica – NASA connection, and as soon as I have anything else to report, I will do so.

Post Script:

Reader Eric Hurtado sent some additional pictures of the lunar Leica from France.

These pictures show additional modifications, an enlarged grip pad on the film advance lever as well as on the lever to open and close the lock for the removable base plate.  The base plate lock is especially interesting since it indicates that it was apparently planned to have the astronauts change film when necessary.  Also visible is the reinforced top plate with an accessory shoe attached and an electronic connection for which there is no explanation.

For additional pictures, in color, please go to:


  1. Is the Hasselblad the only camera that NASA has used on their space missions?

    1. Not at all. Besides Hasselblad cameras and the Leica cameras already mentioned, there are a large number of other cameras used by NASA. Here is a (incomplete) list:

      Linhof 127mm large format roll film camera
      Maurer 70mm motion picture camera
      Ansco Autoset
      Nikon (film)
      Rolleiflex 6008 70mm
      Skylab S190A 70mm
      Skylab S190B 127mm
      Sony HDW-700 High-definition Television Camera
      Black & White experimental Electronic Still Camera
      Kodak DCS460 Electronic Still Camera
      Kodak DCS660 Electronic Still Camera
      Kodak DCS760 Electronic Still Camera
      Nikon D1
      Nikon D2Xs
      Nikon D3
      Nikon D3X
      Nikon D3S
      Canon Digital IXUS 700

    2. What's an Ansco Autoset?

    3. Thhe Anco Autoset was a rebadged version of the Minolta HI-matic, disributed by GAF. It was used on one or two of the early pre-orbital space flights, more as an afterthought because at the time it was thought that photogrpahs would be of little value because of the layer of the atmosphere. It wasn't until the use of the Leica by John Glenn and a Hasselblad that NASA became serious about space photographs. The first Hasselblad in space was actually an off-the-shelf camera that was purchased by the astronaut Walter M. Schirra from a camera shop in Houston, Texas and smuggled on board of the Mercury spacecraft.

  2. Reader Eric Hurtado writes:

    Dear Heinz,

    thank you for your interesting article.

    i send you another picture of the MDa Space Leica in case you need it.

    best regards,

    Eric Hurtado


    1. Thank you very much, Eric. I had never seen these pictures.

  3. The electronic connection appears to be in the same place as the standard PC outlet on the Leica M cameras. Could it be that this is nothing more than a more secure flash connection?

  4. I do not understand the usefulness of the large winding lever, I don't think the astronauts would change the film with their gloves ...

  5. I am speaking of course of the large film rewinding crank...

    1. Why would Leica/NASA have enlarged the film rewind to facilitate rewinding with the gloves of the space suits if they did not intend to change film. The enlarged locking lever for the base plate seems to have done for the same reason. Unless Kodak or another film manufacturer offered films made with a thinner backing, a roll of film was limited to just 36 exposures. Of course changing film would eliminate that. I cannot think of any other reason for these modifications.
      Of course that leads to the argument that, as long as there were plans to change film, why not take the film out of the camera and bring just the film back to earth? That would have saved a considerable amount of weight over the Hasselblad backs that were actually brought back from the moon.
      I will contact Leica to see if they can shed any light on these questions.


  6. I think it just comes from a desire to Leica / NASA to make the operations easier. Obviously they cannot change the film with gloves ... and of course on the surface of the moon ... but in the Lem or in the capsule it is possible and easier with this type of levers, taking in count that the Leica is a small camera.

    1. Those are good points. Leitz might also have installed the additional enlarged lever just in case they might have been needed.

  7. in color!


  8. Thank you Heinz for making this Leica blog!

    Eric H.