On July 14 2022, social media posts suggesting that astronaut Charlie Duke had left a family photo on the moon in 1972 began circulating, including a popular post to Imgur:
Text above an image of what appeared to be a family portrait on the surface of the moon read:
Charlie Duke left a family photo on the Moon on April 23, 1972. On the back side of the photo, a message reads: “This is the family of by astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth who landed on the moon on April 20, 1972.”
A separate post to Facebook on July 14 2022 by the page “Historic Photographs” was similar. It featured a slightly different image of the photograph, and a caption described a different date:
On April 20, 1972, Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke, the youngest human in history to ever walk on the lunar surface, left a photo of this family portrait of him, his two sons, and his wife, which remains on the moon to this day.
Aside from the photograph, neither post provided a source for the claim. A search led to an entry on MetMuseum.org (titled “Duke Family Photograph on Lunar Surface 1972”); the medium was described as “Polaroid Laser Print,” and a concise “Notes” field explained:
Photographed aboard NASA Apollo 16[.]
The same search returned what looked like a transcribed and informal document on hq.nasa.gov, “Data Travel: the Duke Family Portrait.” It was dated October 2000, included the same image, and explained in part:
Now, this photo is some 30 years old, as is its informational content (in these net.days, people tend to label this as ‘virtual’). I just tried to imagine the way in which this particular bit of virtual information – the portrait of a family – already has traveled in these 30 or so years.
Are you still with me? Then let the journey begin.
Not sure when and where exactly this photo in a photo was taken. Probably in the garden behind the Duke’s house, late 60s, on a sunny day. Taken by a photographer or family friend or relative, or maybe with a timer or remotely triggered. The film was removed from the camera, taken where you get your film developed, and got developed and printed on paper. Back it went to the Dukes, where it stayed for a while.
At some point, Charlie Duke probably decided that it was a good idea to take it with him on his mission, so he took the necessary steps, like having it packed in transparent foil, and it finally got placed in the spacecraft. It was launched with Apollo 16, travelled all the way to lunar orbit and landed with the LM. On EVA-3, Charlie Duke took it out on the surface, placed it down onto the lunar soil, and took a couple of photos of the scene with his Hasselblad.
Apollo Magazine 117, which now contained this virtual information -the photo of the photo of the Dukes – was taken back inside the LM. Up it went with the ascent stage into lunar orbit, and traveled all the way back to Earth in order to make a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. There it was picked up together with the rest of the equipment and taken to the photo laboratory in the LRL in order to get developed. It got developed, and the resulting film and prints were called AS16-117-18841 and were stuffed away in some archive for the next few decades, just to be pulled back out seldomly, every now and then, in order to have a copy made for whoever desired one.
As images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) circulated in July 2022, so too did an anecdote about astronaut Charlie Duke leaving a family photo on the surface of the moon in 1972. An entry on a NASA webpage from the year 2000 explained that the image was real, and that Duke did in fact leave a family portrait on the surface of the moon.