the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “space exploration



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.


Blue Moon, 2012


THIS MONTH’S 50th ANNIVERSARY OBSERVANCE (in July of 2019) of the first lunar landing in 1969 is, first and foremost, a celebration of the indomitability of the human spirit, recalling an era in which mankind’s potential was limited only by the scope of its imagination. In addition, for photographers, it is also a story of technical ingenuity and king-hell problem-solving skills. We have lived for a half-century with the crisp, iconic images that were brought back from the surface of the moon, but the larger story of what it took to capture them remains largely untold.

A modified Hasselblad 500-C camera, similar to the ones taken to the moon during the Apollo missions.

And a great story it is.

NASA’s eventual selection of which camera would go to the moon was influenced in the early days of the space race by Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra, himself an amateur photographer. Given that the earliest cameras aboard space flights had proved a technical disappointment, Schirra suggested that a version of his f/2.8, 80mm Hasselblad 500C be modified to document future missions. The legendary Swiss optics company was brought in by NASA to consult on the complete re-engineering of its consumer camera, which, over time,  involved stripping off its cosmetic leatherette trim as well as removing the unit’s viewfinder, auxiliary shutter and reflex mirror. While most modifications were made to reduce the weight of the units or to improve their performance under extreme temperatures, others were made purely to ensure the simplest possible operation under once-in-a-lifetime shooting opportunities. The first NASA-modified Hasselblads were used by Schirra himself during his Mercury 8 orbital mission, and in the capture of Ed White’s historic space walk aboard Gemini IV, with more sophisticated changes effectively turning one of the most sophisticated cameras on the planet into little more than a high-end point-and-shoot by the time the Apollo missions got underway in the late 1960’s.


A sample page from Hasselblad’s lunar user manual shows the right distance to allow between yourself and any spacemen in the vicinity for correct depth-of-field.

Shutter speed for the lunar Hasselblads was fixed, but a selrction of apertures could be chosen by the astronauts to ensure sharp depth-of-field in a variety of situations. Surface images were taken by what came to be called a Hasselblad Data Camera (a re-jiggered 500C), while a separate HEC, or Hasselblad Electric Camera, would be pointed at the surface from inside the lunar landing module. Like Hasselblad, Kodak was engaged by NASA to re-engineer its domestic product, chiefly its premium films for the missions, both by widening frame size from 35 to 70mm and reducing the thickness of the celluloid sheeting to allow 70 shots per camera roll instead of the earthbound 12. The problem of cranking the camera from frame to frame was obviated by specially mounted exterior cartridges that automatically advanced the film after each click. Kodak also formulated several different speeds of film in both monochrome and color. Finally, to make the whole process even more fool-proof, Hasselblad generated special visual operator manuals for the astronauts (shown at left), while the entire camera assembly was permanently attached to the center of an astronaut’s lunar suit (in the case of Apollo 11, “first man” Neil Armstrong) freeing up the spaceman’s hands for NASA’s immense grocery list of surface experiments.

Success in space travel is measured in inches, and also in ounces. And, being keenly aware of how much the mission’s newly collected specimens (such as space rocks) would add to Apollo’s total weight upon its return flight, the crews knew that a calculated swap-out was necessary, and so a total of twelve Hasselblad bodies were left on the moon, after their film packs were detached and loaded on the lunar module. The prospect of free (if pragmatically unattainable) cameras has never been so tantalizing. But as we say down here on earth, the picture, and not the gear, is what’s important, something you can see for yourself in any of the 8,400 Apollo-era images that have recently been uploaded to Flickr. Merry Christmas.

So if a single picture is worth a thousand words, then…..well, you do the math, with a calculator that, today, easily exceeds the computing power of the entire Apollo 11 spacecraft. Technology is the end product of curiosity, and the nerdish odyssey of the Hassies of the moon serve as a good reminder that all the best photography is about exploration, of the vast space either inside or outside the shooter’s imagination.