Pierre Angénieux: Lunar Lenses

On July 20, 1969, fifty years ago this week, Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. This internationally groundbreaking moment was caught on camera thanks to an invention from a French engineer.

At 10:39 pm EST on July 20, 1969, six hours and 22 minutes after landing, Neil Armstrong emerged from the lunar module Eagle. While standing on the ladder, he deployed the television camera that captured his first steps on the moon. The images were broadcast live to more than 600 million viewers, and a 6×25 mm Angénieux lens designed in Saint-Héand, in the Loire département, filmed every second.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, captured by a TV camera's Angénieux lens. © NASA

With zero gravity, solar radiation, temperatures between -238°F and 248°F, and lubricant that evaporated in space, a traditional camera lens would not have withstood such conditions. As a result, since launching the U.S. space program in 1961, NASA had worked with Les Etablissements Angénieux, a French company specialized in high-precision optical equipment for television, cinema, and photography.

The company was founded in 1935 by French engineer Pierre Angénieux, a former Pathé employee. Inspired by the research of German optical scientists Carl Zeiss and Ernst Abbe, he reduced the time needed to create a lens by ten. The pieces were initially assembled in Paris, before production was moved to a workshop in a former school in Saint-Héand, Pierre Angénieux’s native village, north of Saint-Etienne.

NASA’s Optical Scientist

In 1950, Angénieux invented the Retrofocus wide-angle lens — a revolutionary development that increased the image’s depth of field. This was followed in 1953 by a lens with a very wide aperture which allowed for filming in conditions with minimal lighting. This lens was used on television and movie cameras made by U.S. manufacturing company Bell & Howell for 35 years.

A 6x12.5 mm Angénieux lens can be seen on the Rover vehicle (on the right) during the Apollo 15 mission in July 1971. © NASA

Pierre Angénieux then won a call for bids launched by NASA in 1961, and his lenses went on to be used on all American space missions. In 1964, a lens installed on the Ranger 7 probe captured the very first images of the moon, and the Rover lunar vehicle was equipped with another Angénieux lens in the early 1970s.

French lenses have also been used on American shuttles and the Dawn probe, which recently explored the protoplanets Vesta and Ceres. But NASA is not Angénieux’s only U.S. client. Now owned by the Thalès group, the company has also provided lenses for filming television series Game of Thrones as well as movies such as Midnight in Paris, A Star Is Born, Moonlight, and Mad Max: Fury Road!