An ambitious new book chronicles the glorious sights of the Apollo missions

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In one of the photographs in Michael Light's book Full Moon, we see an astronaut in a spacesuit peeping out from a hatch in his vessel to take in a mind-blowing view of the earth. From his vantage, the blue-and-white sphere is godlike, filling the camera lens and surely filling the man's ocular screen. The scale of human to celestial body is demonstrated so grandly, the reader feels a rush of vertigo from the photo.

Light has managed something epic and remarkable with Full Moon, by offering a photo essay of shots taken by Apollo astronauts in the midst of their missions that is silent poetry, and by procuring these photographic "masters" from NASA vaults and moving them off-site for state-of-the-art electronic reproduction for the first time.

Light's 1994 book Ranch comprises aerial photos of a spartan California landscape. Hovering above the dry, pocked terrain, the San Francisco-based artist was reminded of the mother of all dry, pocked terrains, the moon.

Begging and networking for a period long enough to try anyone's patience, he finally convinced NASA to allow him to transport first-generation copies of 32,000 film and slide photographs snapped by Hasselblad-wielding Apollo astronauts to his studio for electronic processing. The clarity of these photos, many being shown to the public for the first time, 30 years after the fact, is spectacular, because they are not duplicates of duplicates of duplicates of duplicates, as Light puts it, but more like clones. The lack of air and the resultant brilliance of sunlight, as only astronauts have seen it, adds to an exacting sharpness that makes photographers drool. One Sky and Telescope writer gushed that the book is "as if Ansel Adams had joined the astronaut corps."

Light selected and arranged 129 images from Apollo missions 1-17 in the order the missions proceeded -- from launch to touchdown to splashdown -- to create an experience for the reader that truly is poetic. With no captions disrupting the quiet flow of one image floating in ink-black space to the next, we see through the eyes of an astronaut, undoubtedly overcome by moments of awe and sheer eerieness, as he records his voyage.

More correctly, 32 different astronauts took the pictures, from 1967-72. Light has spoken with eight former spacemen and says they mostly are tickled by his recasting of the man-on-the-moon story through their eyes, with their visuals rendered as clear as technology will allow. In particular, Apollo 15 Commander David Scott relished the final product, says Light.

"You see, astronauts can't escape the question "What's it like to be up there?' And at some point they have to get tired of trying to answer something it's hard to put into words," Light says. "At one of the gallery presentations of the pictures, he (Scott) was able to go up to different pictures and say, "It was like this.'"

We see such sights as the monumental cylinder of a rocket stage breaking away from the inferno of the exhaust, then the tranquil marble of Earth glimpsed through the hollow cylinder. Inside the ship, we see the stubble-faced astronauts, floating softly, asleep. And we see the moon.

The moon is a ghost world, all white, black and shades of gray, which especially hits home when color film yields no color. It is a seemingly endless expanse of undisturbed mountains, valleys, hills, slopes, boulders, rocks and gravel of mineral solids and dust: "magnificent desolation," said Buzz Aldrin as he stepped off the landing module. The land is hot, harsh white in the sun, dead black in the shade, varying shades of neutral in shadow. When one stands on the bright side, it is so bright one cannot see stars in the glare. Astronauts agree that one of the more bizarre sensations to get used to is the jet-black sky during the sunny day.

The moon looks the way it does because of insanely violent blows from debris during the formation of the solar system. After sustaining deep pockmarks, the moon remained geologically unchanged for 3 billion years, except for the occasional crater left by a micrometeor -- and the footprints of man, which will remain for a million years.

Man also brought color. The color photographs show this ghost world broken by the gold foil on the helmet visors, lunar lander and moon rover, by the vain intrusion of the American flag and, occasionally, by the bluish tint of earthshine. Like the aquarium fish in the film Rumble Fish, the splotches of color in a completely neutral landscape stand out indelibly.

The book itself is designed with awesome sights in mind, including several 45-inch gatefolds composed of photos placed together to form a panorama, in the manner of Warhol, Hockney and the Mars Pathfinder images. Light says that the black inks are "as black as possible, because conceptually everything is built around the color black. Pick up the book and feel how heavy it is because of all the black ink. Smell it -- it stinks because of all that black ink!"

Like the photos, unaccompanied by captions, the cover has no words, helping the reader feel the silence of space, the singular loneliness of David Bowie's Major Tom, if you will, and the graceful progression of a moonshot through the eyes of those who've been there and felt these beatitudes in person. "I wanted to keep the coolness of these NASA mapping images, which is what many of them are," Light says, "and at the same time imbue them with an emotional resonance so they become art and not just some banal picture." Art they are, to say the least. Like Spalding Gray's "perfect moments," many of these photographs reveal times when the astronauts were moved to transcendence. In the words of Apollo 17's Eugene Cernan, "You just stand out there and say, "I don't believe what I'm looking at.'"

Toward the end of Full Moon the astronauts are descending onto our immense sphere of blue, white, green and brown, delicious with color, in marked contrast to the blacks and grays of the world they've just broached and left. We descend, too, all the way down. The window of the delta-shaped command module eventually yields a view of red-and-white parachutes above, then a choppy sea. We are bobbing in the water, home. The journey is over. Were we really there? It seems too unreal. Yes, we did it; it was real; we were there. And now everything has changed.

Michael Light discusses and signs copies of Full Moon at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1, at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid. Call 367-6731 for information.

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