The Leslie Cantwell Collection

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Leslie Cantwell (born October 17) is a UK Space Historian renowned for his extensive knowledge of the Apollo Space programme and space-related artifacts. He has written numerous articles on the subject and is probably best known for his extensive collection of original memorabilia including his collection of large-format images signed by most of the Apollo astronauts.

For a while he acted as an advisor to the London Science Museum Space Department regarding the Apollo 10 Command Service Module better known as Charlie Brown, currently on and has written various articles on the subject of space travel and space art, particularly that of Apollo 12 moonwalker, Alan Bean.

The London exhibitions of his large-format Apollo mission images captured the interest of many new devotees of the Apollo programme, and a large collection of his work is currently on display at the Kansas Cosmosphere, Hutchinson, Kansas.[1]


Cantwell was born in Sutton, Surrey, England, and after leaving school at an early age, drifted into the IT sales industry, setting up his own company in 1982. Nowadays his company and various interests occupy his time but allow him opportunities to travel to America to attend events and meetings with the Apollo astronauts.

Photo collection[edit]

The Leslie Cantwell Collection is considered by space industry experts to be the largest and most important of its kind in the world, and celebrates the golden age of space travel.

The collection is a montage of autographs and official NASA photographs including images of all six voyages that Man made to the moon. Some of the images are original Hasselblad photographs (the official camera of choice used on all missions) and many of the photographs were taken in space by the astronauts themselves; others were taken by their NASA colleagues on the ground. Walter Cunningham, Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 7, has said of the photographs, “These are rare and unique pictures from a unique time in the history of the world.”

The photographs themselves are an awe-inspiring reminder of the magnitude of the achievement of the US space program in the 1960s and 1970s of actually putting a man on the moon, but what makes the collection so unique is that each bears a handwritten inscription by the very astronauts who made history which, in Cantwell’s words, give the images “the personal touch of a moonwalker who fulfilled the dream of man over millennia, writing in his own hand a segment of mission transcripts, poetry, or his own comments”.[2]

The combination of imagery and poetry takes the photographs beyond visual art and captures the glory of one of the most milestones in the history of Man.

The collection originates from a single photograph given to Leslie Cantwell by the Apollo 15 moonwalker, James Irwin, in Hanover, Germany, in 1981. Irwin was there to promote his book, and offered to sign a picture for Cantwell, which he inscribed with the words, “with love from the moon.” When Cantwell returned home the photograph was consigned to the attic to gather dust. Cantwell is an avid reader of renaissance literature and poetry, especially Dante’sLa Divina Commedia’. When, by chance, he rediscovered Irwin’s photograph amongst his possessions ten years later, he happened to be reading ‘Paradiso’ (Part 1 of La Divina Commedia) and, contemplating the photograph, he was struck by the fact that many of the lines relating to the poet’s ascent into heaven could be applied to the astronauts’ forays into space. For example, “I’ve been in the heavens … and I’ve seen things which cannot be told by anyone who’s not been up there.” Dante refers to himself as ‘the vessel of Apollo’ (lines which Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 Commander, later inscribed on a photograph of the Apollo 17 command module).

Similarly, lines from Kipling's ‘The Secret of the Machines’the-secret-of-the-machines also evoked the paradox of the audacity of the missions and their very precariousness: “But remember, please, the Law by which we live, We are not built to comprehend a lie, We can neither love nor pity nor forgive, If you make a slip in handling us, you die!”. He is quoted as saying he imagined a Saturn V rocket on the launch pad. “All the noise, the arc lights, the technology, and Man’s audacious venture in relation to this image”

For Cantwell, it was the touch paper for a passion that would lead him to amass an enormous number of photographs, from which he painstakingly selected images that, appropriately inscribed, he felt would portray not only the magnitude of the US space program but also the absolute transcendence of the astronauts’ experience of actually looking down from space.

He always thought their heroism and sheer daring is awe-inspiring. He says, “The early astronauts were the greatest explorers ever. They left the planet and went up into the Dark Unknown, knowing that in all likelihood they might not return.”

As the collection grew, Cantwell sent the images to Venice to be enlarged to a 16” X 20” format (the usual NASA format is 8” x 10”). He says, “Some of that imagery is simply breathtaking and an 8x10 would do it no justice. I also needed ‘room to work’, and the placement of the inscription, the colour of the pen and other details were all relative to the quality of the finished article. Furthermore, the actual signature, following the inscription formed the fusion required to bring the image to life thus making it more meaningful to the viewer.”

Cantwell made countless trips back and forth across the Atlantic, travelling extensively throughout the United States to meet and converse with the Apollo astronauts, with many of whom he developed a special rapport that would enable him to understand the “men behind the mission”. Amazingly, he was able to persuade all but one of the twelve men who set foot on the moon to inscribe the images, including Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke and Harrison Schmitt, amongst others. Only Neil Armstrong refused (for years he has turned down Cantwell's requests. The fact that he was able to persuade the likes of Buzz Aldrin and John Young to write such lengthy personal inscriptions when they rarely so much as sign an autograph, is an exceptional feat.

As well as containing passages chosen by Cantwell from Dante and Kipling, some of the images bear inscriptions which capture amusing exchanges that occurred during the voyages; others describe some of the more chilling moments which gripped the world. Images from the Apollo 13 are one such example.

Apollo 13[edit]

Whilst studying the logo of the Apollo 13 mission Cantwell had an idea which resulted in a unique photographic project. Apollo 13 was the 7th manned mission in the Apollo program and was intended to be the third such mission to the moon. However, it is probably best remembered as the first in the Apollo program to require an emergency abort. The moon landing was abandoned after an oxygen tank exploded en route to the moon, approximately 200,000 miles from Earth, which crippled the service module necessitating emergency makeshift repairs to the lithium containers so that carbon dioxide could be eliminated to ensure adequate oxygen in the module, and also resulted in limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of drinking water and before it was possible to return the crew safely to Earth. Jim Lovell, the Apollo 13 commander, later called the mission, “a successful failure”.

The Apollo 13 mission logo depicted three horses as Apollo’s chariot flying into the void of lunar space as well as the motto “Ex luna, scientia” (“From the moon, knowledge”). For Cantwell the logo perfectly encompassed the hope and fearlessness of the astronauts and was struck by the paradox between anticipation and reality, given that the final outcome was so poignantly in contrast to the expectations. He had the logo printed onto a large-format, high-resolution picture which he then had inscribed with actual mission and mission control quotations by those involved, both at Mission Control and aboard the space module. The mission commander, Jim Lovell, wrote his now-famous quote: “Houston, we have a problem.”

Cantwell also produced a large-format image of the lithium dioxide container which the crew had had to repair using materials to hand on board. He tracked down Joseph P. Kerwin, the CapCom controller on-duty at the time of the emergency who had conveyed the repair instructions to the crew, who agreed to write the actual instructions he had conveyed to the crew.

The Apollo 13 images give a unique perspective of a moment when the world held its breath at history was made.

Other photographs[edit]

Other images in the collection are no less haunting or poignant: an image of an Apollo 11 earth orbit is brought to life by a 35-word inscription by Buzz Aldrin of the ‘silent communion’ prayer he uttered shortly after landing on the moon, or Al Worden’s inscription on an image from the Apollo 15 archives of his poem “Blast Off” (from his book, Hello Earth, Greetings from Endeavour) - he wrote the words in the shape of a rocket on a launch pad.[3]

The collection has been on exhibition at The Proud Galleries in London which received much media coverage (including a podcast with Alan Bean) and at the Cosmosphere in Kansas, which also was attended by astronauts such as Jim Lovell and Fred Haise.