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Shooting for the Moon

Fifty years ago today NASA astronauts Commander Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the Moon, taking their first steps onto the lunar surface just hours later, on the 21st of July 1969. Many of us will have seen this iconic photograph of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon taken by Neil Armstrong on that historic occasion.


Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The space race saw the USA put the first men on the Moon but three years earlier, in February 1966, the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank observatory (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) had intercepted the first Soviet images transmitted directly from the surface of the Moon. These were sent from the unmanned Luna 9 space probe, the Soviet Union’s first successful ‘soft landing’ on the Moon. It was an audacious hack by the observatory into a fax signal being sent from Luna 9 that saw the resulting images published in British newspapers. [1]

In fact, this is only one example of Manchester’s fascinating connection to the history of lunar photography.

Currently on view in our Rylands Gallery is material telling the story of University of Manchester Professor Zdenĕk Kopal, an eminent astronomer and astrophysicist and his involvement with the Manchester Lunar Programme. Kopal headed a team that took over 60,000 photographs of the Moon’s landscape between 1960 and 1966, which informed US colleagues about the geography and geology of the Moon. This work directly contributed to the success of the Apollo missions, as it determined the best possible landing sites for the spacecraft sent up by the USA.


The first image of the Moon’s surface sent from LUNA 9 intercepted and released by the Jodrell Bank observatory. [2] Courtesy of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

We do have even earlier images of the Moon in our University collections. The unique Strines Journal (English MS 1422/3) from 1854 has an article titled The History of the Moon by famed engineer James Nasmyth, along with a photograph of the Moon by ‘J. S.’. The initials are those of Joseph Sidebotham who was a senior partner in the Strines Printworks from which the Journal took its name. It is likely that Nasmyth who was living in Patricoft, Eccles at the time and Cheshire-born Sidebotham met through the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society as they shared interests in both astronomy and photography. All looks fine, except the photograph by Sidebotham isn’t really of the Moon at all; it is in fact of an exquisitely detailed and accurate plaster model of the surface.

In his retirement Nasmyth had become increasingly fascinated by astronomy and built his own powerful telescope which allowed him to see the minutiae of the Moon’s landscape.  Astrophotography (the photography of astronomical objects) was certainly possible with early camera technology, but it was still extremely difficult to capture  detail and so Nasmyth had painstakingly recreated the surface with models and photographed them instead. James Nasmyth went on to author a book, The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite, with James Carpenter in 1874 and the publication contains a series of these ‘lunar’ photographs, all images of careful reconstructions. What is fascinating about our Strines photograph by Sidebotham is that it is such an early example of this technique, pre-dating Nasmyth’s published images by some twenty years.


Early photograph of Nasymth’s Moon model by Joseph Sidebotham, in the Strines Journal, 1854. English MS 1422/3.

All of which leads me to our most recent purchase, a beautiful set of authentic photographs of the Moon: The Moon by Lewis Rutherfurd and Richard Proctor, published here in Manchester by Alfred Brothers in 1873. It is a truly significant item in the history of lunar photography and complements the other items relating to the history of lunar photography already within our collections.

The photographs were taken by New York-born Lewis Rutherfurd, who was an astronomer and astrophotographer. Rutherfurd also invented his own technology for developing his photographic practice. This included devising the first telescope designed specifically for astrophotography. [3] Alfred Brothers worked out of a photographic studio in St Ann’s Square here in Manchester and had his own reputation as an astronomical photographer. His photographs of the solar eclipse in 1870 had helped astronomers advance their understanding of the sun’s corona. [4]

The folio-sized volume contains three albumen prints of the Moon taken by Rutherfurd and printed and published by Alfred Brothers. In addition to the photographic prints, the portfolio includes five wonderful printed items which are all charts, maps and illustrations of the lunar landscape.



All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence.

With thanks to the Imaging Team.

[1] The Luna 9 Space Hack

[2] The First Pictures from the Moon’s surface 

[3] Lewis Rutherfurd

[4] Alfred Brothers

3 comments on “Shooting for the Moon

  1. stellahalkyardoutlookcom

    Fantastic post – great to see the lunar photo collection growing!

  2. Ian Ridpath

    ‘Naysmith’ should of course read Nasmyth throughout.

    • John Hodgson

      Many thanks for pointing out the error, Ian. I have corrected all instances.
      Kind regards,
      John Hodgson

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