by Matt Ayres
Astronaut Don Pettit has become one of the most prolific astronaut photographers during his expeditions aboard the International Space Station. He could (and did) saturate downlink transfers with photos for three full days from just one 30-minute photographic session in space. While photography is part of an astronaut’s job requirement, Pettit’s engineering ingenuity and natural curiosity has led him to create photos that are as stunning for their artistic beauty as they are for their scientific value. Below, he gives a first hand account of his experiences beyond Earth's atmosphere.
What led you to become an astronaut?
Becoming an astronaut was something I became aware of as a kid when John Glenn flew. I filed that away in the back of my mind. After I popped out of graduate school with a PhD in chemical engineering, I realized I was qualified to apply to NASA to become an astronaut. And so I put in an application. After being rejected three times, the fourth time was a charm.
What was that experience like?
It was like walking in the clouds when I first found out I’d been selected. Of course, the euphoria vanishes quickly when you find out how much work it’s going to be. But it’s fun work. It’s like going back to school.
You start off with basic astronaut training, which I like to think of as Astronaut 101. We spend two years training full time, which is about equivalent to a four-year college degree.
Physical. Academic. Flying. Tangible skills. We fly T-38s, supersonic twin-engine after-burner training aircraft, for spaceflight readiness training. A lot of the skills involved with flying these are applicable to working in the cockpit of a spacecraft during highly dynamic phases of flying. And we hone these skills in a real environment, not a simulator, where a mistake could cost you more than a reset button.
NASA Astronaut Don Pettit takes a selfie in the reflection of Robonaut 2’s helmet onboard the International Space Station (Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit)
Do you also train for the photography?
We have training on all kinds of topics. From taking care of the systems on space station to flying a robotic arm to going out and doing spacewalks to doing the scientific experiments.
We also get training on photography and the use of the cameras on space station. And these are professional-level cameras that have a lot of buttons and menus. They’re almost like a little computer in themselves.
We have a cadre of folks here on the ground, professional photographers as well as trainers, who not only teach us how to use the cameras, but also about the specific equipment we have on station. Like how to set it up in that space environment to get the best pictures.
There’s a lot of engineering photography that we do. We have to take macro images of pins in an electrical connector or a bit of grunge in a hydraulic quick-disconnect fitting or little patterns that might develop on the surface of one of the windows. These things need to be documented so the images can be downlinked for engineers on the ground to assess what’s happening to the systems on space station. We get training specifically on doing these engineering images, which, for the most part, are not really interesting to the public.
So photography plays a big role in what you do?
Photography on the space station is more than just taking a bunch of pretty pictures. We take pictures of Earth and the surroundings of earth, and these pictures represent a scientific data set recorded now for over 14 years. About 1.2 million pictures were taken as of July 2012. That number’s obviously ticked up.
Russian segment Zvezda can be seen in the foreground of this star-trail image created by Don during Expedition 31 onboard the International Space Station (Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit)
These images are also art. They illustrate to people what space is like for those who don’t get a chance to fly in space.
What are some of the differences we might not think about when photographing in gravity versus weightlessness?
As an example, we have one of my favourite telephoto lenses here: the 400mm f/2.8. It weighs quite a few pounds and definitely requires a tripod down here on Earth. In weightlessness, this becomes a beautiful piece of equipment to use. You can completely control it by grabbing on to the camera. And it’s heavy enough that small things like your heartbeat won’t make the lens jiggle. If you pick up a camera body with a small lens on it, the pulse in your fingers will make the camera shake.
To get around that, I taped a stick on the back of the camera in the centre of the optical axis. Then when I was moving the camera, I would just have two fingers on the end of the stick. That way I could fly the camera around without physically having my fingers on the camera. And since the stick was aligned with the optical centre, I could slowly rotate the stick with my fingers and make the camera rotate through 360 degrees.
In some respects, the more massive the camera, and the more massive the lens, the easier it is to manipulate in a weightless environment because small shakes have a smaller diminished effect on the imagery.
What’s the perspective like from space?
Looking at Earth from space is amazingly beautiful. You can see things on the length scale of half a continent. However, I argue it’s no more beautiful than Earth from Earth. It’s just a different perspective of what we’re used to seeing. We find Earth from space exceptionally beautiful because we’re so polarized to the natural beauty around us when we’re walking on Earth.
An astronaut’s-eye view of Earth (Photo Credit: NASA/Don Pettit)
What have you learned from your adventures photographing from space?
Astronaut imagery of Earth is an example of learning what you need to take pictures of and how to take the pictures. Initially, you would just have a camera with whatever lens, point it out the window, and start shooting. And then you find out there are certain details you may want to focus on in this huge orbital vantage point. In order to take advantage of that, you need to use wider-angle lenses.
If you use telephoto lenses, you could come back with pictures that are just about as good as what you could download from Google Earth. So you need to ask yourself what kind of imagery is going to be the most useful. Telephoto imagery via astronauts can point out things that satellites aren’t programmed to take pictures of.
Once we make some interesting discoveries on imagery from space, then you can program a satellite to do the same thing and do it more frequently and probably collect a better data set. But often times it takes a human being in the loop to take a picture of something that nobody thought would be worth taking a picture of.