The NASA Photographers Who Bring the Cosmos to Earth
Astronaut Terry Virts waited 10 years to go to space. The former Air Force pilot joined NASA in 2000, the year that the International Space Station (ISS) welcomed its first long-term residents, but a series of unfortunate events—a surplus of new hires in the late 1990s; the fatal Columbia descent in 2003—caused a backlog of rookie astronauts who were delayed in leaving Earth’s atmosphere.
On February 8, 2010, Virts finally piloted the Endeavour shuttle into Earth’s low orbit, heading for the ISS to deliver two new modules for astronauts to live and work in. One was the Cupola, a domed observatory that offers 360-degree views around the station. While it was only a 13-day mission, Virts would get to know the Cupola intimately as the best place to take photographs of Earth, which he continued to do during his next journey, a 200-day expedition.
During his time on the ISS, Virts obsessively captured the colors and textures of Earth. Upon seeing the intense blue of the planet from space for the first time, he felt as though he “had been raised in a black-and-white world” and “was seeing color for the first time,” as he wrote in his book View From Above (2017). Virts set the record for the number of images taken by a single astronaut in space—319,275—and continues to share them on his Instagram.
But Virts is just one of the many astronauts and researchers who take pictures from beyond our planet. NASA’s scientists—as well as their international and private-sector counterparts—remain our gatekeepers to the universe; they capture the only views of space that most of us will ever see. And though they may not be considered professional photographers in the modern sense, they are following in a much older tradition: the explorer, setting out into the unknown, armed with a camera.
When pioneering Apollo astronauts first photographed the moon from its orbit in 1968, they brought bulky Hasselblad cameras and Kodak film magazines—a far cry from the digital technology that Virts had access to aboard the ISS. Even more unthinkable now are the images from 1965’s unmanned Mariner 4 spacecraft, which took four days to send back 22 grainy monotone pictures of Mars.
Today, NASA keeps up with the voracious speed at which we consume images with over 24 million gigabytes of stored data, which includes a seemingly unlimited stream of new shots of outer space taken by the rovers on Mars (rest in peace, Opportunity), the Juno probe orbiting around Jupiter, and astronauts on the ISS.
NASA’s scientists remain our gatekeepers to the universe; they capture the only views of space that most of us will ever see.
NASA astronaut Donald Pettit believes that what has remained universal about exploring new terrain—be it in space or on Earth—is the notion of a select few trailblazers returning to share their experiences far and wide. And photography, since its inception, has become crucial to that process. He points to the black-and-white documentation we have of the Arctic and Antarctic explorations that took place shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Images serve as scientific data, but equally importantly, they shape public perception, something Pettit understands well. “Being in space is an incredible experience, and you want to be able to share that with people who don’t have the opportunity,” he said.
But how can one possibly understand the infiniteness of space, a concept entirely foreign to the inhabitants of our tiny rotating rock? According to space historian Piers Bizony, that’s up to NASA to determine. As he wrote in Taschen’s volume The NASA Archives (2019), “NASA’s task is to bring such mysteries within reach of human understanding so that everyone can appreciate at least some of the universe’s grandeur.”
Photographing the moon
NASA was founded in 1958 in reaction to the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of Sputnik, an intrepid, beach ball–sized satellite that became the ire of U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower and formally kicked off the U.S.–Soviet Space Race. In quick succession, the U.S.-branded Explorer 1 followed Sputnik; then, men followed the satellites. The cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first person in space in April 1961; astronaut Alan B. Shepard became the second in May that same year. NASA’s solo Mercury missions were succeeded by two-person Gemini missions, and the duration of flight times grew as the agency prepared for future Apollo spacecrafts to successfully leave Earth’s orbit.
Walter Schirra, one of the seven Mercury astronauts (and the only one to also fly on Gemini and Apollo missions), was largely responsible for the advent of NASA’s space photography. In 1962, he suggested bringing his own Hasselblad 500C on the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission, and after NASA’s engineers made some heavy modifications to the camera, his request was approved.
That auspicious experiment led to a long and fruitful relationship between the space agency and Hasselblad. The Swedish camera company began producing custom cameras based on the astronaut’s needs, with features such as larger, simplified buttons; automatic advancement of film; and anodized matte surfaces to prevent blinding sun glare. (Hasselblad also scrapped traditional viewfinders, since they were of no use to someone wearing a space helmet.) The Hasselblad Electric Data Camera (HEDC) was specifically designed for the extreme temperature fluctuations on the surface of the moon, and it also included a Réseau plate, an interior glass panel with crosshair markings that appeared on the contact prints and were used to calculate distances and dimensions of sites of interest on the moon.
These modified medium-format cameras would become critical tools for the nearly 30 astronauts in the Apollo program, which ran from 1968 to 1972 and held the world’s collective attention. Not only did the photographs provide tactical data (such as the Earth’s weather patterns) or potential lunar landing sites, they fundamentally changed how humanity saw its home planet.
Over the course of 11 missions, Apollo astronauts embarked on a series of firsts: the first time men orbited the moon (Apollo 8), the first men to land on the moon (Apollo 11), and, sadly, the first (and only) rolls of film that were left on the moon (Apollo 12).
Each mission came with a list of images to capture. For the moon missions, the astronauts were given charts, called “targets of opportunity,” which mapped out sites to capture and how best to capture them, including which film, lens, and camera settings to use.
Some of the images taken for scientific purposes have become iconic. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin’s photograph of his space suit’s footprint, for instance, shot during the first moon landing in 1969, was actually taken to examine the nature of lunar dust. The photographs that astronauts took with their extra film have been equally important, such as Earthrise (1968), one of the most famous views of our home.
If astronaut William A. Anders of Apollo 8 had not bothered to take photographs beyond his “targets of opportunity,” we would have missed out on Earthrise, which shows our humble planet emerging from the all-encompassing darkness of space. That portrait of Earth—a fragile, lonely entity—became a rallying image to preserve our planet, and was named one of Life magazine’s “100 Photographs That Changed the World.” Anders is often quoted as saying: “Despite all the training and preparation for an exploration of the Moon, the astronauts ended up discovering Earth.”
Capturing Earth from above
Today, we can see views of Earth through the lenses of astronauts aboard the ISS, such as Virts. Astronauts use photography for practical purposes—to troubleshoot technical issues with Houston, or to take images that can help with future missions or research—but they often take photos for pleasure, too, which are then added to NASA’s archive. In Virts’s photos, captured during his 200-day mission from 2014 to 2015, the world’s most complex natural environments are rendered in stunning textures and colors. Central Yemen becomes ripples of red-and-orange hues, juxtaposed against the purple-and-cream lightning strikes of mountainous territory. The Caribbean is a vivid swathe of crinkled turquoise with a smattering of cotton-white clouds.
It’s only fitting that Virts, who retired from NASA in 2016, delivered the Cupola module that he and other astronauts, like Pettit, would use to add innumerable images to NASA’s archive. Both astronauts have nurtured a deep love for photography since childhood, and used their time aboard the ISS to captivate a wider audience with their imagery, from Pettit’s popular “star-trail” images—technicolor long exposures of the Earth—to Virts filming the 2016 IMAX movie A Beautiful Planet while on board.
Taking photographs aboard the ISS is a wholly different experience than taking pictures on Earth (so much so that Pettit produced a technical guide for ISS residents). Astronauts now have access to a host of Nikon digital bodies and lenses, as well as a RED Epic Dragon for 4K video and a Panasonic 3D camera. And while such advancing technology has simplified some issues that Apollo photographers grappled with, there are still plenty of issues it can’t resolve—such as the challenge of capturing mercurial weather systems on Earth, or countering the extreme lighting conditions of an orbiting station that experiences 16 sunrises and sunsets per day. The ISS, after all, is a small satellite hurtling around the planet at 17,500 miles per hour, which comes with its own set of photographic challenges to work through, from white clouds blowing out the exposure to focusing on a moving target 250 miles below.
But nothing beats the view. Virts was awed by the Namib Desert’s thousand-foot-tall sand dunes, the cyclonic cloud patterns over the Aleutian Islands, and lightning storms at night, which look like a “string of firecrackers going off,” as he wrote in his book. In May 2015, the station flew through the aurora australis, or “southern lights,” which he wrote was “surreal, supernatural even, and one of the most unearthly experiences of my life.”
Virts’s experience was amplified on spacewalks, during which he strapped on a GoPro housed inside a temperature-controlled, pressurized enclosure while working on his tasks on the ISS exterior. “The view is so emotionally powerful that it’s hard to capture,” he recalled of the spacewalk. “It takes your breath away. You actually can’t imagine it unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes.”
While Virts shared with the world his privileged view of the planet, it’s science and international cooperation that makes it possible (Virts’s second ride to the ISS was on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft with one Russian and one European crewmate). Sharing his day-to-day on social media was important to him, he said, because “at the end of the day, all of those things don’t matter unless people know about them.”
Seeing beyond humanity’s reach
While astronauts regularly make trips to space, given that we haven’t quite cracked traveling at the speed of light, humankind hasn’t been able to personally explore much of the solar system. Instead, we send out probes to fly past our celestial neighbors, or orbit around a single target for an extended period of time.
Early probes in the 1960s included tiny labs to process and scan the film they captured; the probes then beamed back the data by assigning the “light” and “dark” part of the images as binary code. The process was incredibly slow and arduous, taking hours to transmit a single frame. Today, advanced digital sensors capture multiple scans of targets through red, blue, and green filters, and full-color images are assembled on Earth. Stereoscopic and VR cameras have also widened our view of far-flung places. These images play a crucial role for NASA, especially when it comes to sharing new discoveries with the public.
In fact, in recent years, NASA has begun to employ the help of citizen scientists to study NASA’s data or process images, among other duties, including assembling full-color images from the agency’s raw data. “These keen-eyed and industrious individuals have located hitherto unknown asteroids, processed pin-sharp panoramas of the Martian surface, and unveiled hidden patterns in the atmospheres of Saturn and Jupiter,” Bizony wrote in The NASA Archives.
One person working with these citizen-scientists is Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, who has worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for more than 40 years. During her career, she has been a part of some of the most important studies of inner and outer planets: the pioneering (and ongoing) Voyager 1 and 2 missions, which launched in the 1970s and flew past the outer planets; Cassini, which began its mission to Saturn and its moons in 1997, and ended in 2017; the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, whose HiRise camera has studied the Red Planet since 2006; and Juno, which is responsible for the stunning new views of Jupiter that currently pop up in your news feed.
Juno didn’t actually require a camera for its mission, Hansen-Koharcheck said, but the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, was determined to bring one. “It would be dumb to go all the way to Jupiter and not bring a camera,” she said, with a laugh. They asked Malin Space Science Systems to build an outreach camera—one whose primary purpose is to engage the public—that would fit on the payload. “In a way, that was such a freedom,” Hansen-Koharcheck said, because they didn’t have to engineer a camera to meet specific mission requirements. “We could do anything.”
“It would be dumb to go all the way to Jupiter and not bring a camera.”
That freedom had its limitations, however. Previous probes sported a large telescope with a narrow-angle camera, but Juno wasn’t designed to carry such a weighty optical instrument. And because the spacecraft continuously rotated, the camera wouldn’t be able to take and assemble composites of individual images. If they wanted to capture Jupiter’s poles in their entirety, it would require a 58-degree field of view, which is far wider than previous probe cameras.
“It turns out, that was a brilliant decision,” Hansen-Koharcheck said. The wide field of view allows for jaw-dropping detail over a much larger area. “That’s part of what makes these images so stunning. I’d like to say that we thought of all that ahead of time, but it did not occur to me until I was looking at the pictures,” she added, with a laugh. And since there isn’t an imaging team on the Juno mission, citizen scientists in particular have played a meaningful role in processing its images.
Hansen-Koharcheck and her team post both raw and lightly processed images of the planet online, which anyone can download and edit, and then submit their processed versions to NASA. Submissions can range from yellowish, true-to-color images to eye-popping enhanced renditions to some very abstract, creative takes.Hansen-Koharcheck is one of two curators who choose which submissions to highlight. The images picked up by news outlets are typically of the eye-popping, enhanced variety, lifting Jupiter’s muted, swirling atmosphere in bold blue and copper. They’re a far cry from the images that Hansen-Koharcheck helped capture from Voyager 1’s flyby in 1979, which, in mysterious black-and-white, looked like they could have been plucked from TheTwilight Zone.
In the past few decades, our understanding of the solar system has radically shifted. The agency has sent probes to every planet, landed rovers that take images from the ground on Mars, and is beginning to prepare for manned missions to the Red Planet.
“Over the space of my career—so, over 40 years—[the planets and their moons] went from being little pinpoints of light in ground-based telescopes to being worlds,” Hansen-Koharcheck said. Take Jupiter’s moons, for example. There’s Io, with its volcanoes; Ganymede, with its craters; and Europa, which “probably has an ocean underneath that icy crust,” she said. There’s also Callisto, which is peppered with craters—“and we have names for those craters,” Hansen-Koharcheck emphasized. And Titan, Saturn’s moon, was once “just a little brown smudge in the telescope,” she continued, but now they’ve found that it’s “a place that’s so much like Earth; it’s stunning.”
For images beyond our solar system—beyond the range of probes—we have telescopes. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into low orbit in 1990, and it reaches beyond human imagination, bringing us mind-bending images of neighboring galaxies that look like the glittering eyes of storms, or nebulae thousands of light-years away. Its most famous image pictures the latter: Pillars of Creation, photographed in 1995 and again in 2015, shows a towering formation of interstellar dust in the Eagle Nebula, some 7,000 light-years from our planet. Telescope gazing may be the closest we ever get to time travel.
As this story is being written, the Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope—a collaborative endeavor from NASA, the CSA, and ESA—is being built and is slated to launch in 2021; NASA is in the stages of researching habitable 3D-printed homes for people who will touch down on Mars; and Voyager 1 and 2 soldier on. Both spacecrafts reached interstellar space in 2012 and 2018, respectively, making them the only man-made objects to ever leave the heliosphere, though their cameras have long been discontinued. It’s uncertain when, or if, humans will ever be able to join them, but if that time comes, those first explorers will certainly have cameras in tow.
Jacqui Palumbo is a Senior Editor at Artsy.
Header Video: Video from the ISS during the annular eclipse, 2012. Courtesy of Don Pettit/NASA.