An Unlikely Recovery

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong

On a recent episode of On Taking Pictures, Bill and I were discussing the story of Carol Armstrong, wife of famed astronaut Neil Armstrong who, according to several news sources, found a mysterious white canvas bag while cleaning out a closet in their home. As it turned out, the bag contained some 20 artifacts from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, including the actual 16mm film camera that recorded not only the Eagle’s final descent to the surface, but also Neil Armstrong’s iconic “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The camera was also used to record Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin, planting the American flag. The artifacts were turned over to the National Air and Space museum, who added the camera to their “Outside the Spacecraft” exhibit currently on display. “Needless to say,” says museum curator Allan Needell, “for a curator of a collection of space artifacts, it is hard to imagine anything more exciting.”


As both a photographer and a spaceflight enthusiast, I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Needell and, on a recent trip to DC, a visit to Air and Space to see the camera was near the top of my list of things to do. I arrived at the museum and made my way to the information desk to ask where the camera was being displayed. There I met Joe Polito, a docent at the musem and a fellow fan of all things that fly (I later learned that in addition to his duties at Air and Space, Mr. Polito is studying to become a docent at the Udvar-Hazy Center, home of the SR71, the Space Shuttle Discovery and pretty much every other cool object that has ever taken flight). I asked Joe if he would answer a question or two about the recovery of the Apollo 11 artifacts.

According to Mr. Polito, when Mrs. Armstrong first noticed the bag in the closet, she immediately contacted Air and Space, who sent a team out to her home in order to perform the idenitification and inventory. The way it sounded, the contents were a surprise to Mrs. Armstrong, who had no idea that her husband had kept any items from the lunar mission.

After talking a bit more with Mr. Polito, I made my way up to the exhibit and there, in a glass case along with several other artifacts, was the camera itself—a fairly unassuming smallish metal rectangle, perhaps a little larger than a VHS tape (you remember those, don’t you?). A 10mm f/1.8 lens is mounted to the front and a top-mounted paddle-type switch that allows the user to select 24, 12, 6 or even one frame per second capture speed. It’s a fascinating object, but more impressive than the object is the story that it has been able to share with the world on a half-million mile and nearly 45 year journey that has finally come to an end.

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