See photos — some familiar and some rarely seen — from the Apollo 15 mission, which launched place 50 years ago today.

July 26, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of a space mission that cannot be described as anything less than spectacular.

Apollo 15 was the first of NASA’s manned lunar “J” missions — Moon landings that supplied astronauts with a robust lunar lander capable of staying on the surface for three days. (The prior landings of Apollo 11, 12, and 14 topped out at about half that time).

The extra fuel and consumables carried by the advanced lunar lander allowed for three separate moonwalks (EVAs), each lasting 4 to 7 hours. NASA also updated the orbiting command module with additional cameras and equipment.

Apollo 15 launched on July 26, 1971, and returned to Earth on August 7th, with spaceflight veteran and mission commander Dave Scott, command module pilot Al Worden, and lunar module pilot Jim Irwin. The three astronauts met all of their mission goals and extended scientific knowledge of the Moon. In addition to extensive geology work, the Apollo 15 moonwalkers pioneered the use of the Lunar Rover, a small electric vehicle that extended their exploration range.

Despite a couple of jammed cameras that limited some of the planned photography, the Apollo 15 astronauts returned hundreds of still photographs (both color and black and white), along with some 16mm movies and hours of color TV coverage.

In celebration of the mission’s 50th anniversary, here are 20 amazing photographs from Apollo 15 — some familiar, many rarely seen — along with quotes from the men who, quite literally, called the Moon “home” for three days in 1971. (All photos are credited to NASA.)

Goodbye, Earth!

The earth shown in four panels, each more zoomed out than the next
Sometime after launch while on the way to the Moon, the astronauts took a series of photographs of Earth receding in the distance.

“We've been taking turns looking at the Earth through the telescope,” Scott radioed to Houston. “It's a fantastic sight.”

Landing Site in View

ridges on the lunar surface as seen from above from Apollo
Apollo 15’s landing site was at the foot of the Apennine mountains, near two features both named Hadley: a nearby peak and a narrow winding canyon, known as a rille. This photograph was taken shortly before landing.

"Man must explore"

Astronaut in suit facing the camera right near the lander, which is shown in the reflection of his helmet
A color TV camera captured Scott’s first steps on the Moon shortly after he climbed down the lander’s ladder. (The TV image is tilted due to the orientation of the camera at the time.)

“As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley,” Scott said, “I sort of realize there's a fundamental truth to our nature. Man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest.”

Astronaut stands to the left of American flag on the lunar surface, with hills in the background
Later, Irwin photographed Scott near the American flag.

Like a Trampoline

astronaut places tool into ground on lunar surface
The Moon has surface gravity about one-sixth that of Earth, so humans walking on the surface tend to feel light and buoyant, even with the weight of the suit.

“Walking on the Moon feels just like walking on a trampoline,” Irwin later wrote in his autobiography, To Rule The Night. “The same lightness, the same bouncy feeling.” Irwin descended to the lunar surface shortly after Scott.

Working in Lunar Orbit

Image of craters on the lunar surface as seen from the command module
While Scott and Irwin explored the lunar surface, Al Worden was hard at work in the orbiting command module — maintaining the spacecraft, performing experiments, and especially taking pictures.

Worden later explained: ““[For] general photography within the spacecraft…I had inserted in the Flight Plan at the beginning of each day's activity those [film] magazines that would be required for that day's activities. That worked very well in helping me organize the photography for the day.”

Deploying the Rover

The lunar rover, an open vehicle with four wheels, two seat and a receiver that resembles an upturned umbrella
The lunar roving vehicle was stored on the outside of the landing craft, and both moonwalkers worked together to remove it from storage.

“We each had our particular thing to do on the rover,” said Scott. “I guess one man could have done it all with coaching from the other, but we had divided the tasks, and the timeline worked out well.”

Lunar Geology

an astronaut walked the lunar surface in the distance, with a crater in the foreground
Scott’s description of a boulder demonstrates the thoroughness that the astronauts brought to their geology tasks.

“There is one boulder!” Scott reported. “Very angular, very rough surface texture. Looks like it's partially . . . well, it's got glass on one side of it with lots of bubbles; and they're about a centimeter across. And one corner of it has got all this glass covering on it; seems like there's a linear fracture through one side. . . . It looks like we have maybe a breccia on top of a crystalline rock.”

The astronauts often used a geology hammer to remove small pieces of a large rock for sampling.

Rake Samples

the imprints of a rake used to gather rocks from the lunar soil, next to an astronaut's footprint
In addition to collecting stones, mission geologists also encouraged the astronauts to take rake samples to collect fine regolith material.

“The operation of the rake went just like our simulations,” Irwin noted. “It worked good for collecting the rock fragments as well as for transferring the soil. I thought it went real well.”


A bright glare shown as an astronaut walks the lunar surface with the sun visor down on his suit
The lack of an atmosphere means that the Sun’s light is more intense on the Moon than it is on Earth. Both astronauts used visors on their helmets to help reduce the bright light.

“After EVA-1, I had a headache because of the glare,” Irwin later remembered. “On the second EVA, I pulled the glare shield down to protect my eyes and I felt good from then on.” Scott agreed: “With the visor up, it’s pretty tough going driving into the Sun.”

Smile, Jim!

The lander to the left of the image with the rover to the right. An astronaut looks toward the camera from behind the rover.
Many of the Apollo photos are utilitarian or technical in nature, but the men weren’t opposed to taking, and even directing, a human-interest photo when the occasion arose.

At one point, Scott noticed a good photo composition and quickly directed his companion to make it even better.

Scott: “Hey, Jim?”
Irwin: “Yes?”
Scott: “Turn around a minute…look over here.”

The result? A photo showing the lunar lander, the rover, and a — presumably smiling? — Jim Irwin.

Working in the Suits

An astronaut on the lunar surface faces the camera and leans to the side to pick up a tool.
Apollo-era lunar suits could be difficult to bend when pressurized, making it a challenge to retrieve items from the ground. Here, Scott flexes the suit to reach for a tool near the experiment site.

Laser Reflector

an image of a device resting on the lunar surface, that appears as a white square gridded with circles.
Among the many experiments deployed by the astronauts was the laser ranging retroreflector, also called the LRRR, or “LR cubed.” This passive device simply reflects laser light back in the direction it came from. So, by striking the LRRR with a laser from Earth and measuring the time it takes for the light to return, scientists can obtain precise measurements of the Earth-Moon distance.

Naturally, it was important to keep lunar dust off of the retroreflector experiment. “I took the LRRR farther south than we had planned in order to try and keep it out of the trajectory as we took off, to keep the dust off of it,” Scott recalled. He then took photographs of the assembled device. “Okay, Joe. I got the LR cubed pictures, and it's still super clean.”

Double Shadows

The shadows of two astronauts, one to the left and right, seem to be facing one another
While both moonwalkers show up frequently in the TV images, there are no still photographs that show both at the same time. However, one photograph did capture the shadows of Scott and Irwin working side by side.

Making Tracks

With the rover in the background, the lunar soil is shown with many boot prints and rover tracks. The rover tracks appear to be less deep.
Much of the Moon’s soil is very fine; Neil Armstrong described it as “almost like a powder.” With no atmosphere to disturb imprints, the tracks of both man and machine should remain preserved in the soil for ages to come.

The Apollo 15 astronauts took many photographs of the tracks; at one point, Dave Scott remarked, “Look at the rover tracks; I'm going to take some pictures of the rover tracks here. And our boots — our boot prints, both. Look at the difference. That old rover is light.”

Zodiacal Light from Lunar Orbit

a burst of light appears in the center of the image, reflecting off of dust, over the lunar horizon to the right
Here is one of Worden’s zodiacal light images with the lunar horizon in the foreground.

Meanwhile, Worden continued his work in lunar orbit, and he radioed his status to Houston: “Yes, so far everything — particularly the zodiacal light and the gegenschein calibration and that sort of thing — has been going just as per Flight Plan.”

A Lunar Canyon

Two astronauts in the foreground appear to be standing at a boundary of rocks.
Toward the end of their third day of exploration, the two moonwalkers performed some geology work near the edge of Hadley Rille — the lunar canyon near the landing site. But Mission Control began to become a bit alarmed by what they were seeing on the TV.

“And out of sheer curiosity, how far back from what you would call the edge of the rille are the two of you standing now?”

Scott was initially a little confused by the question, until Houston clarified: “It looks like you are standing on the edge of a precipice on TV; that's why we're asking.”

The perspective of the rover’s camera and the use of a telephoto setting had combined to present the optical illusion that the astronauts were standing much closer to a cliff then they really were.

Scott quickly eased their minds. “Oh, gosh, no, Joe. It slopes right on down here.” In fact, the initial slope was so gentle that Scott couldn’t even see the bottom of the canyon from where they stood.

Boulders on the Edge of the Canyon

One astronaut leans over a rock and tools while another is reflected in his visor.
In this photo, Scott collects geology samples near the rim of the rille. Irwin’s reflection can be seen in the visor.


Two astronauts face away from the camera. The astronaut to the left appears to be holding a tube pressed into the lunar surface
One surface experiment involved drilling several feet into the lunar ground to extract a core sample. The rover’s TV camera monitored the progress.

The Moon’s surface can be quite dense a few inches down, and one of the core samples proved difficult to extract, requiring both moonwalkers to participate.

“We finally extracted the core stem,” Scott remembered. “Each of us had a handle of the drill under the crook of our elbow, and we got it up to the point where we could put our shoulders under it. Then with each of us with one handle of the drill on top of our shoulders, we pushed as hard as we could — it must have been at least 400 pounds — and finally got it to move and got it out.”

"Everything ran just beautifully"

The command module centered orbiting over the lunar surface, cylindrical in shape with a pointed nose.
Here, Al Worden pilots the command module in lunar orbit with the Moon’s surface in the background. “The…spacecraft ran just beautifully the whole time,” Worden said. “The fuel cells ran without a problem. In fact, everything ran just beautifully, and I really had no concern for the operation of the spacecraft during the lunar orbit operations.”

One Last Drive

The lunar surface with rover trails and a hill in the background, which stands out drastically against the black background of space.
While returning to the landing site during their final rover ride, Scott and Irwin took a moment to appreciate the beauty of the Moon around them.

Scott: “Oh, look at the mountains today, Jim, when they're all sunlit; isn't that beautiful?”
Irwin: “Really is.”
Scott: “By golly, that's just super! It's — you know — unreal.”
Irwin: “Dave, I'm reminded of a favorite Biblical passage from Psalms. ‘I look unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.’ But of course, we get quite a bit from Houston, too.”

Return to Earth

After a successful liftoff from the lunar surface with 170 pounds of moon rocks on board, the two moonwalkers rendezvoused with Worden in the command module and returned to Earth.

Jim Irwin passed away in 1991, followed by Al Worden in 2020. Dave Scott is one of four living moonwalkers. Apollo 15 remains a fascinating mission, and a highly successful one — a true example of human ingenuity, training, bravery, and curiosity.

Happy 50th anniversary, Apollo 15!




Image of Anthony Barreiro

Anthony Barreiro

July 26, 2021 at 4:46 pm

These are beautiful and interesting photos. Apollo 15 was a great leap in the scientific exploration of the Moon. From what I've read elsewhere, Dave Scott was an especially enthusiastic geology student while training for the mission.

There is an error in the caption for the "Like a Trampoline" photo. As stated, the surface gravity of the Moon is one sixth of Earth's surface gravity. But the mass of the Moon is only 1.2 percent of Earth's mass. The Moon's radius is 27 percent of the Earth's radius. The surface gravity of a planet (or moon, or whatever) is proportional to the mass of the planet times the inverse square of the radius of the planet. Since the surface of the Moon is four times closer to the center of the Moon than the surface of the Earth is to the center of the Earth, the Moon's surface gravity is 16 times higher than it would be if the Moon were the same size as Earth, with only 1.2 percent as much mass.

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Cousin Ricky

July 26, 2021 at 6:46 pm

I noticed that. Looks like S&T readers are on the ball.

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Monica Young

July 27, 2021 at 9:40 am

Thank you for noting this, Anthony! I've fixed the post.

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Anthony Barreiro

July 27, 2021 at 11:57 am

Thanks Monica. Newton's still right about most things gravitational.

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Yaron Sheffer

July 26, 2021 at 4:50 pm

Had we kept the space pace, there would have been about 100 more Apollo flights by now. That's 100 more Rovers parked all over the Moon 🙂

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July 30, 2021 at 11:51 pm

Heck, we'd have had at least one permanent base on the Moon right now! But the Recession of '74 was bad, man, real bad...but we could have bounced back quicker with a "Jobs With NASA" program. If, if, if. The middle word in Life.

Now we have Billionaire Boys Occasionally Blowing Up Stuff, and Other Billionaire Boys making it possible for other Billionaires to touch (ungh, ungh,) the edge of the upper atmosphere.

And one of them has the cheek to do it on Moon Day (July 20)!

Such progress! ("Can I get you another cup of tea, Mr. Bezos?")

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Yaron Sheffer

July 31, 2021 at 10:18 am

A cup of tea, or any other beverage, is vitally important in space travel. In 2001 (the movie) there is a lot of eating/drinking going on on all spacecraft, and even in other dimensions. Then there is the outrageously funny incident when Arthur the Hitchhiker asks the spaceship computer for a cup of tea!

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August 1, 2021 at 11:12 am

An interesting concept but a very poor distribution of limited funds available for space research. Even in a fairy tale world where zero is spent on defense because totalitarian dictatorships did not exist and there was no corruption or incompetence in government at any level, budgets have to be drawn up and choices have to be made.
Still, an interesting concept. I suppose there would be a movement to "clean up" the Moon!

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Cousin Ricky

July 26, 2021 at 6:47 pm

I remember the name Al Worden from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

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August 1, 2021 at 9:36 pm

Thanks for this cool article! 🙂

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