OF ASTRONAUTS AND APERTURES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE VERY FIRST CAMERAS IN SPACE were not cutting-edge, ground-up tech crafted by NASA engineers, but the personal gear of the earliest astronauts, like John Glenn’s $40 Ansco Autoset in 1962 and Wally Schirra’s more sophisticated Hasselblad 500C a few years later. Taking documentary pictures in flight was originally little more than an afterthought, with the Canaveral gearheads gradually introducing more and more after-market modifications to make the pilots’ cameras perform more reliably in space. Hasselblad, in particular, was the closest thing to an official NASA camera from Mercury and Gemini missions clear up to the first Apollo moon landing in 1969, producing the iconic images we most associate with the space program.
With the first space shuttle flights in 1981, however, a shift to the 35mm format occurred, as Nikon became the dominant brand for the second phase of NASA’s first golden age. Dozens of mods were developed, transforming the company’s best prosumer film cameras into truly space-ready gear. More than half a dozen different models were reworked by the Nikon/Kennedy Center brain trust to answer challenges that were unique to zero-g, the bulkiness of astronaut gloves and helmets, or the punishing thermal extremes unique to life in orbit.
As an example, the Nikon F3, seen in the above magazine ad, saw, among its tweaks, a greatly enlarged viewfinder (since helmets prevented an astronaut from putting his eye right up against the camera) a detachable, heavy duty battery pack to automatically advance and rewind film (still an “add-on” feature for most cameras at the time), pre-loaded film magazines (capable of snapping up to 250 frames per roll) and early versions of both aperture priority and auto-focus (since early pictures taken by the astronauts were either underexposed or blurry). Other, less obvious fixes, like the removal of leatherette trim (the gases in the glue could leach out into the cabin air in weightless conditions) and the invention of a kind of pot-holder “space pouch” to encase the cameras so that they wouldn’t freeze during extra-vehicular activity, were also hatched. Several of NASA/Nikon’s key innovations were adapted later for general consumer cameras, while other workarounds, like the arbitrary redesigning of switches or the removal of reflective enamel, were of no value to John Q. Snapshooter.
Today, the shuttle-era Nikons are the subject of a great degree of study by engineers who value them for their ingenuity, as well as important links in the chain of photography’s onward advancement over time. They also fetch astronomical prices (sorry) at auction. Best of all, we have them. Unlike the Hasselblads that documented the Apollo missions (which had to be left on the lunar surface to counter the weight added to the cargo bays by the accumulation of moon rocks), the shuttle Nikons booked a round-trip ticket home.