We celebrate Apollo 16 with a look back at photos from the mission that took two astronauts to the lunar surface for three days of exploration.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of humanity’s fifth crewed lunar launch — the highly successful and fascinating Apollo 16.

Launched on April 16th, 1972, and returning to Earth 11 days later, Apollo 16 was commanded by John Young. He and his lunar module pilot Charles (Charlie) Duke spent three days on the Moon’s surface. Command and service module pilot Ken Mattingly stayed in lunar orbit, performing experiments.

To understand the Apollo 16 mission, it’s important to consider the scientific context of the time. If you take a quick look at the Moon, it’s clear that the surface features two major types of geography: the dark-colored basaltic mares and the lighter, rugged highlands. A popular theory at the time of the Apollo missions held that some highland regions were the products of lunar volcanism. Apollo 16’s landing site was chosen so that the astronauts might locate volcanic rocks.

In the end, the landing site proved to be shaped far more by meteorite impacts than volcanism, with sedimentary rocks called breccia making up many of the samples. The force of impacts had fused together the rock fragments that made up the breccia. The extensive geology training that the astronauts received to prepare them for the mission aided them in correctly assessing what they saw at the landing site.

Naturally, the crew members returned a vast number of photographs during their voyage, too. In celebration of the mission’s 50th anniversary, we’ve selected a variety of images to showcase their achievements — including a few that rarely see publication. Enjoy!

1. Farewell, Blue Planet

Earth view
A view of Earth from Apollo 16
NASA

About an hour after firing their engine on a path to the Moon, the Apollo 16 astronauts saw this view of North America.

“You just can't believe how beautiful it is,” said Mattingly. “See the reds in the desert down there and the southern United States and northern part of Mexico. And from here, you see the Great Lakes and the State of Florida out there. And it's just absolutely something.”

2. One Mission, Two Spacecraft

Orion and Casper, spacecraft of Apollo 16
Two lunar spacecraft: Orion (left) and Casper (right)
NASA

Like all six crewed landings, Apollo 16 separated into two distinct spacecraft when it reached the Moon. One was the command module named Casper with Mattingly aboard, the other was the lunar module Orion with Young and Duke. Casper remained in lunar orbit and eventually took the crew home to Earth, while Orion actually landed on the Moon. Orion also carried the Lunar Roving Vehicle — the small electric cart that Young and Duke drove.

3. Troubleshooting in Orbit

Delayed in lunar orbit
A crescent Earth rises above the Moon as seen from the lunar module, with Casper in the distance.
NASA

Shortly before the lunar landing, Mattingly noticed a problem with the command module’s steerable engine. Young and Duke were already in in the undocked (separated) lunar module, so the two spacecraft waited together in lunar orbit while ground crews in Houston examined the issue. The looming possibility of a landing abort led Mattingly to famously remark, “I be a sorry bird.”

After several hours, engineers determined the problem could be managed. The landing proceeded, although the third moonwalk was shortened because of the delay. While waiting in orbit, Young and Duke captured this view of Earth rising above the lunar surface with Casper nearby.

4. Charlie Duke and John Young

Saluting the flag
The Apollo 16 commander and lunar module pilot salute the flag. (Young, on left, is jumping.)
NASA

Young and Duke took turns photographing each other as they saluted the American flag. Young leapt into the air for his photo.

5. Collecting “Big Muley”

Big Muley rock on TV
Duke reaches to pick up a large rock sample in this TV frame.
NASA / Ken Glover

Most of the time, mission control encouraged the astronauts to select small rocks for sampling; either naturally small rocks or fragments chipped off boulders. At one geology stop, Houston noticed an interesting rock on the edge of a crater and asked Duke to collect it. The image on TV perhaps disguised the true size of the stone.

“As you come around there, there is a rock in the near field on this rim that has some white on the top of it. We'd like you to pick it up as a grab sample.”

“This one right here?” asked Duke, in view of the rover’s TV camera.

“That's it.”

“Are you sure you want a rock that big, Houston?” warned Young. “That's 20 pounds of rock right there.”

“Yeah, let's go ahead and get it,” Houston said. Fighting the stiff pressure suit, Duke managed to bend down and retrieve the rock, carefully rolling it up his leg with one hand.

The sample ended up weighing 12 kilograms (26 pounds) and is the largest rock collected during the Apollo missions. It was later nicknamed “Big Muley,” after Apollo 16 lead geologist Bill Muehlberger. After a brief discussion on where to immediately stash the sample (“It ain’t gonna fit!”), the two astronauts put in underneath Duke’s seat on the rover.

6. Working Alone

View from Lunar orbit
Four examples of what Mattingly saw from lunar orbit.
NASA

Meanwhile, Mattingly worked alone in lunar orbit, performing science and photography experiments, while still piloting the command module. “I think the command module is a real fine one-man spacecraft in orbit,” he said. “[It’s] . . . much more efficient for one man to operate it in space than it is for three men.”

Some of the spacecraft’s cameras were mounted outside, but Mattingly also had cameras in the cockpit with him. “We only had one roll of film that was available for crew option photography. That was magazine Victor. I kept trying to pace myself on that, and save it. I figured that we had 160 exposures to last us 6 days at the Moon. And I kept trying to ration myself instead of taking a whole bunch of pictures the first time I saw something.”

7. Rover Seats

Lunar Roving Vehicle
The Apollo 16 lunar rover
NASA

Only three crewed rovers were ever driven on the Moon, during Apollos 15, 16, and 17. Many of the rover photos are taken from some distance, but Young made this close photograph of the rover’s seats while documenting a magnetometer experiment.

8. Geology Talk

Footprints on the Moon
Soft lunar dust preserves the footprints of the Apollo 16 astronauts.
NASA

At their first geology stop, Young and Duke discussed the rocks at their feet and selected one for sampling.

Duke: “Okay. Here's one right here, John, that'll make a good one. See that one right there by that footprint? That's a good sample size. About 5 centimeters across?”

Young: “That one right?”

Duke: “No, that one right here to the right of my shadow…it's an angular subangular rock, Houston, 5 centimeters. I can see some white clast shining through it…it's a white matrix; it's a breccia, looks like, white clast with some greenish-looking, very small millimeter-sized phenocryst in a black matrix.”

9. Gathering Fillets

Lunar shovel
Young photographs Duke and a lunar shovel tool during their second walk outside the module.
NASA

The term fillet refers to impact debris that bounced against the side of a rock and piled up beneath it. During the astronaut’s second day of exploration, they photographed a fillet and sampled it with a small shovel.

10. Geology Hammer

Geology hammer
Duke took this photograph of his commander using the geology hammer; in the distance, just to the right of the rover, is the Big Muley rock.
NASA

In this photo, Young prepares to use a geology hammer to break a fragment off a rock. The hammers used on Apollos 14, 15, 16, and 17 were somewhat heavier than the hammers used on Apollos 11 and 12.

11. Rover TV Camera

TV camera
This photo of the TV camera was taken by Duke during a drive with the lunar rover.
NASA

The TV images from the last three Apollo missions (16 and 17 in particular) are of remarkably high quality and allowed for people on Earth to participate in ways not possible before. The aiming and zoom of the TV camera were controlled from Earth, leaving the astronauts free to work without constantly repositioning the camera.

12. Stone Mountain

Exploration of Stone Mountain
Young works near the rover during the exploration of Stone Mountain.
NASA

On the second day of exploration, Young and Duke drove the lunar rover nearly 150 meters (500 feet) up the side of a formation called Stone Mountain, which offered a vantage point high above the valley below. “Wow! What a place. What a view, isn't it, John?” said Duke. “It's absolutely unreal,” said Young.

Young later remembered the steep slope. “It was only after we . . . turned around, and looked back at that hill we just came up, that we got the idea we might have bitten off at least as much as we could chew. That was a steep ridge in places. There were breaks in the ridges. There would be a ridge crest and it would just drop out of sight. On the way back down, even though I was following my tracks, I proceeded very nervously.”

Geologists had anticipated that Stone Mountain would yield volcanic samples, but the site was instead littered by impact material ejected from nearby South Ray Crater.

13. Rake Samples

Sampling lunar rocks
Young amidst geology samples.
NASA

Apollo astronauts often used special rakes to gather soil and rock samples, as Young is doing in this photo. After Apollo 12, mission commanders wore red stripes on their spacesuits to make it easier to identify which crewmen was which.

14. North Ray Crater

North Ray Crater from the ground
It’s difficult to judge the sizes and distances on the Moon due to the lack of recognizable objects such as trees, roads, or buildings; without these, it’s not readily apparent from photos just how large North Ray Crater is.
NASA

The main destination of Apollo 16’s third moonwalk was the fabulous North Ray Crater. Even though North Ray might seem small when compared to famous craters like Tycho or Copernicus, it is nonetheless a massive formation — and the largest crater visited by any Apollo team. North Ray Crater is about 1 km (.6 miles) wide and 250m (790 feet) deep.

“You could not see the bottom,” Duke said later. “I wasn't going to get close enough to see in because there was no way you could have gotten out of there if you had fallen in.”

Mattingly also assisted in the exploration of North Ray crater with observations from orbit. He and the moonwalkers both noticed a distinct horizontal line of blocks on the crater wall, although they debated its origins“Looking down in North Ray I had absolutely no sensation of any strata,” he recalled. Young agreed, “Me either — except for that line of blocks.”

15. A Rock the Size of a House

Duke samples House Rock
In one of the most famous Apollo 16 photos, Duke samples House Rock. Clearly visible are his geology sampling bag, 70mm camera, cuff checklist, and helmet reflection.
NASA

Even though the Apollo 16 astronauts found mostly impact breccia, the possibility remained that volcanic landforms could exist underneath the surface debris. To help test this idea, Young and Duke walked to an enormous 24-meter-tall boulder named House Rock on the edge of North Ray Crater and chipped samples from it.

This large boulder would presumably represent deeper, excavated material that hadn’t traveled as far during the crater-making impact. (A similar technique was used on Apollo 14 with Saddle Rock near Cone Crater.) But House Rock turned out to be breccia as well.

16. No Rattlesnakes on the Moon

No rattlesnakes on the Moon
Young examines the shadowed area where Duke sampled.
NASA

One of the astronauts’ tasks was to sample permanently shadowed lunar regolith free from the weathering effects of solar wind. During the third day of exploration, Young and Duke located a suitable boulder that provided the right kind of shade. “You know, Tony,” Duke said, “that might be a permanently shadowed soil right in there. I think it is, as a matter of fact.”

“Outstanding!” Houston called back.

Duke raised his visor to see better in the shade and reached about three feet under the boulder’s overhang to retrieve a few ounces of lunar material. He joked, “You do that in west Texas, and you get a rattlesnake. Here you get permanently shadowed soil.”

17. Me and My Shadow

Astronaut's shadow
A self-portrait of the Apollo 16 lunar module pilot.
NASA

Duke photographed his own shadow (perhaps unintentionally) while making a panoramic series of pictures.

18. UV Photography

UV camera/spectrograph on the Moon
The ultraviolet telescope stands in the shadow of the Apollo 16 lunar module.
NASA

Apollo 16 carried a ultraviolet camera/spectrograph that Young used to photograph Earth and other celestial objects.

19. That Bright Sun

Brilliant sunshine
Duke stands in the glare of the brilliant lunar sunshine.
NASA

“No matter what you see on the pictures, or what you see on the TV…you just don't have a feeling of about how stark and brilliant these colors are,” said Young. “ . . . the most dazzling place I believe I've ever been. It just absolutely — brilliant colors that contrast in that bright Sun.”

20. Family Photo

Family photo
Duke photographs a photo.
NASA

While Apollo astronauts were typically highly focused on their work, some would occasionally take a brief moment to perform a fun or personal task. Duke, for one, left a memento in the lunar dust: a photo of him and his family. On the back, he wrote, "This is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth who landed on the moon on April 20, 1972." The photo is still there, next to a couple of boot prints and tracks from the rover.

21. Return to Orbit

Orion ascent stage
The ascent stage of Orion in lunar orbit.
NASA

After finishing their work on the Moon, Young and Duke returned to lunar orbit using the upper half of Orion, called the ascent stage, shown here. After docking with Casper, the crew began to transfer gear between spacecraft, but they unintentionally brought some lunar dust in, too.

“The command module filled up with LM dust and rocks and things almost immediately,” Mattingly recalled. “Within an hour, it was very noticeable that there was a coating of dust on all the instrument panels and all the surfaces. You'd see little rocks float by in front of your nose. I was surprised how rapidly that stuff all had diffused in. It came over as soon as we brought the first bag or the first suit, or whatever it was. That stuff was just coming off of everything and it never stopped.”

22. A View Impossible From Earth

The Moon from Apollo 16
The Moon, as seen from Apollo 16
NASA

The Apollo 16 crew photographed this view of the Moon, showing a mixture of familiar nearside features and some areas of the far side not visible from Earth.

23. Goodbye Moon

Apollo 16 returned to Earth on April 27th. It was Duke’s only spaceflight (Young and Mattingly each flew again later on Space Shuttle missions). On the way home, Duke summed up the experience: “Boy, I can hardly believe the last three days . . . the most fascinating place I've ever been in my life and will ever hope to go, and we sure had a good time collecting all the rocks.”

Happy anniversary, Apollo 16!

View from above
A view from the command module
NASA

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