Iwe need to make time for awe and wonder. When you work in space, you are so focused on the mission that you can almost forget your surroundings. The remoteness and isolation can be hard to get over until you’re back on Earth.

The image on the cover of Apollo Remastered, a new book of restored images from the NASA archive that is being called the ultimate photograph of mankind’s greatest adventure, shows Commander Jim McDivitt looking at Apollo 9 in 1969. I think a lot of people read the awe and wonder on his face, but I see tremendous focus; it docks with the lunar module. When you dock, you use a robotic arm to grab another vehicle and it’s the most stressful 90 seconds of your life. Everything depends on you.

  • Apollo 9, March 7, 1969 James McDivitt docks the lunar module, “an almost impossible task,” according to Russell Schweikart, who took the picture. Photo: NASA/JSC/ASU/Andy Saunders

Where I really see that awe and wonder is in a photo of Neil Armstrong moments after his historic moonwalk. He’s back in the pod and his face says, “Oh my god, what did we just do?” He looks like he’s probably having a really hard time processing it. You see a lot of pictures of him in poses, but the smile here is so genuine. Imagine that you are one of the first people to set foot on another celestial body. He looked closely, and there were tears in his eyes.

Apollo 11 July 21, 1969 Astronaut Neil Armstrong's face photographed by Buzz Aldrin moments after their historic moonwalk

I was born in 1972 in a world where people walked on the moon. My mom loved space, so we watched all the space shuttle launches together on TV. I remember seeing grainy images of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon. The incredible engineering feat that Apollo 11 represented opened up to me the potential that we can do anything.

When I look at these remastered images of the Apollo missions, I am reminded of what I experienced during my six months in space. Take the light. There is no such white person on earth. I love seeing it come through the capsule window and smack the astronauts in the face. There’s a photo of Commander Wally Sheary on Apollo 7, and the light falling on him is the whitest you’ve ever seen. Sunlight is a nuclear fusion reaction and is the purest white in the universe. It is not yellow, as we see it, and it is not hazy – it looks like that because of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Apollo 13, April 15, 1970, astronaut Fred Hayes tries to sleep in the cold lunar module

Likewise, due to the absence of atmospheric haze, the clarity with which you can see in space is incredible. You can see very far and it makes it difficult to judge distance. In the famous picture of Aldrin on the moon, the first thing that catches the eye with a photon of sunlight is his suit. Look through his visor and you can clearly see the lunar lander, the flag, and Armstrong firing a shot. There is no haze or dust. Thanks to this, there is no scattering of light, so the shadow is clear and sharp.

This is what has spawned so many conspiracy theories. People thought, “This is the light in the studio.” And they’re right, but you don’t get that outdoors on Earth. To me, that’s what’s so authentic about these photos. I think, “This is what I’m all about. This is space.”

Gemini XII November 11–15, 1966 Buzz Aldrin takes the first selfie in space.

Being launched into space is a brutal experience. A huge amount of energy is wasted when the speed of sound is 25 times the speed of sound. You are well aware that you are entering a different realm. So when the engines cut off and you enter weightlessness, it’s a feeling of total peace. You think, “Wow, we did it.” Photos of Earth from space capture the stillness you feel as you orbit the planet.

Earthrise is one of the most famous pictures in our history. Just for fun, try turning the page 90 degrees to the left: that’s the orientation at which the Apollo 8 crew who took this picture would have actually seen Earth when they jumped from behind the Moon, with the Earth’s north pole at the top. Book orientation is something we are all familiar with.

Apollo 8, December 24, 1968, Earthrise by William Anders during the first crewed mission to orbit the Moon and return, as NASA puts it.

  • Apollo 8, December 24, 1968 Earthrise taken by William Anders during the first manned mission to fly around the moon and back, as NASA puts it. Photo: NASA/JSC/ASU/Andy Saunders

What strikes you from space is that Earth is unlike any other planet we’ve seen. Even hundreds of thousands of miles away, you just know there’s a planet teeming with life. It’s so beautiful and delicate against that huge black background.

When I look at static images of Earth, my mind is reminded of how dynamic it looks from space. Each orbit changes. And we made almost 3000 orbits. In spring, when rape blossoms bloom in Europe, the continent turns yellow. And then in the winter it can be a real dirty brown. You see so many thunderstorms at night.

Apollo 9, March 6, 1969, Astronaut David Scott pictured himself wearing Russell Schweikart goggles

There were a few things we always called each other to look at. Eruption of volcanoes. The aurora borealis, because they are spectacular and sometimes stretched to the space station and we felt like we were flying through them. I remember seeing incredible algae blooms in the Black Sea. Several large icebergs float in the South Atlantic.

The space station can be quite a busy place with radios and cameras on and six or seven of us on board. I was often the last to get up and turn off the lights. Part of my evening routine was to go to the bath window and look out at the Earth while I brushed my teeth. It was amazing to have this as my evening look.

I also love the pictures of the astronauts in the capsule. You go from the boundless space to these claustrophobic structures that we have to lock ourselves in to survive there.

Gemini IV, June 3-7, 1965 Ed White leaves the spacecraft in this photograph by James McDivitt - the first portrait taken by another human in space

When the hatch opened to enter outer space, I felt a sense of joy. We were in spacesuits for six hours and spent that much time preparing, and then suddenly it was just the two of us in the airlock. We went down into the vacuum, opened the hatch and just relaxed.

I think the Apollo 11 crew would have felt the same way. Can you imagine that after all the sacrifices the space program made to get there, suddenly the moment came when they landed and all they had to do was just go outside and walk on the moon? I’m sure they felt, “We did it.” Not only them personally, but also us as humanity.

Apollo 16, April 23, 1972, family photo of astronaut Charles Duke with his wife and young sons left behind on the moon

  • Apollo 16, April 23, 1972 Charles Duke said of this family photo: “The retirement was an emotional moment. Photo: NASA/JSC/ASU/Andy Saunders

We were lucky with the 10 minute period of our spacewalk where we had to wait for the sun to set so we were forced to just float in space. It was such a liberating experience. On one side you look down at the Earth, then you roll over on your back and look at the Milky Way. All the time without any force on your body. It’s incredibly serene, but you’re also constantly aware of danger and isolation, and the feeling of being heavily impacted.

It’s interesting to see in the early spacewalk photos how they had this “umbilical cord” that kept them on the spaceship. It makes them look a little lost. As if floating in space. Nowadays you will not see it. We are constantly holding on to something or tied to a four-foot leash.

Apollo 17 December 13, 1972 Astronaut Eugene Cernan's picture of Harrison Schmidt peering into a huge crater on the Moon.

I’ve always been a person who tries to keep things in perspective, but going into space changes your worldview and thoughts about mortality, about spirituality. During my spacewalk, I thought about how small and insignificant we are—that’s what you naturally think when you see Earth as a tiny oasis of life in a vast universe. But from a scientific point of view, our body is made up of various elements that have been put together in a certain order, and each of these atoms was forged in the universe, in the stars. We have now reached a position where we can form complex intelligent thoughts about who we are and where we come from, and develop instruments such as the James Webb Space Telescope to understand this. And it makes you think: “We are not small and insignificant; we are the consciousness of the universe.” The visual experience – whether from being in space or looking at these photos – allows you to contemplate this.

One of the most touching images for me is the family photo that Charlie Duke left on the moon. On the back he wrote: “This is Astronaut Duke’s family from planet Earth. Moon landing, April 1972. They really maximized the scientific return of these Apollo missions; Suddenly seeing it: “Yes, but don’t forget that we are human.”
As told by Candace Pires

“They help us imagine that we ourselves are going on an incredible journey”

Andy Saunders, who restored the archive

Original NASA photographic film from the Apollo missions is one of the most important in existence. To preserve its condition, it is safely stored in a freezer in Building 8 of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. It never leaves there – in fact it rarely leaves the freezer. The images it contains include the most significant moments in our history, when humanity first left its home planet.

As the original film languished in its frozen storage for half a century, nearly all of the Apollo images made publicly available were copies of the master duplicates or copies of copies, leading to a gradual deterioration in quality that has only accelerated with the advent of digital representation of these images on the Internet.

Apollo 16 April 23, 1972 Astronaut Charles Duke films John Young collecting lunar dust

However, in recent years the original film has been removed, thawed, cleaned and scanned with unprecedented resolution. There is a vast treasure trove of some 35,000 photographs, most of which are rarely seen, in part because of the quality or exposure of the original film. It’s easy to forget that they were made in an era when photography was purely analogue and required light-sensitive chemistry, film and paper. Digital scans of transparencies are often underexposed and difficult to process. The images shown here are obtained from new high-resolution scans of the original film, carefully restored using image enhancement technology. They offer an intoxicating blend of the pioneering, pre-digital era of the 1960s, capturing stunning otherworldly vistas, spaceships and pre-computer technology. The technical skill of their filming, combined with the quality of the equipment used, produced images so clear they bordered on the surreal.

Apollo 15, August 2, 1971, Astronaut David Scott's photograph of James Irwin saluting the US flag

They help us understand the effort and imagine ourselves making the incredible journey. To take a look at the hostile environment before opening the hatch and exiting. Marvel at the grandeur and scale as we stand on the edge of huge craters and ridges and look up at the towering mountains, taking in the lush desolation of this alien world. Or just watch Neil Armstrong and his fellow space explorers descend the stairs and peer into the lenses of their cameras.

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This is an extract from Apollo Remastered by Andy Saunders, published by Particular Books on September 1 for £60. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com

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