Recollections of a Space Photographer

by Joseph Allen

Editor’s Note: Dr. Joseph Allen shared his experiences as a photographer on two NASA flights during a lecture on December 18, 1994 held in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston exhibition “Quest for the Moon,” December 18, 1994-February 5, 1995. This essay is drawn from his remarks and includes references to slides unavailable for publication.

In the invitation I noticed that I was to speak about my “extraordinary experiences in space.” I will do that. But I want to be very quick to point out that the very act of making a journey out beyond the edge of the Earth is extraterrestrial, it’s extra world, and it is indeed extraordinary travel, and there are a number of men and women who have made such journeys now. After all, we’re in the thirty-some years of the Space Age. Beginning in 1967, I was an astronaut with NASA for eighteen years. In November of 1982 I flew aboard Columbia on STS 5. I also flew as a Mission Specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery on STS 51A in November of 1984. So, the experience is not uniquely mine. But [it] is nonetheless a unique experience. Many of the persons who travel from this side of the world, by the way, live in the Houston area, and I think it is fitting in the extreme that the account of space journeys is documented in a very innovative way here in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
I’ve made two space journeys. I am truly an over-the-hill astronaut in that both of them were ten years ago. Hard to believe – because I find myself thinking about them today almost as though they were yesterday. During the course of the space journeys I was the ship’s photographer. With that assignment I had the great fun of taking about 1,500 pictures from the vantage point of a spaceship.
As you know, my background is technical and it’s also physics. I, for a number of years, studied the laws of Sir Isaac Newton, learned about Galileo, studied elements that had been first recognized by Leonardo Da Vinci and Johannes Keppler. And, I believe, if those great thinkers of some hundreds of years ago were to be told that we humans had traveled from Earth out into space, they would be interested, but frankly they would not be all that astonished. They would not be flabbergasted by that. However, if they somehow were here today, and we told them that space travelers had been able to capture, to freeze-frame, a slice of time and hold it on two dimensions in a representation called a photograph, they would think it clearly magic! They would not understand photography or how it’s done. And yet we accept it as just a matter of our daily life. It’s an invention about 150-years old and the invention is rather well documented in this exhibition. But, it’s clearly magic that we can do that. And, space travelers can, through photography, freeze-frame time and bring back the two-dimensional representation of that to share with everyone. I think that is one of the greatest contributions of human travel out from space – that we can turn and look at the Earth. It can literally be said that on the way to space we caught sight of Planet Earth. It is that thought with which I would like to begin.
I really have only three minor objectives – the main objective, I think, is to set the stage for the exhibition. But my aim is also to share with you three separate things. I would first like to share with you, as best I can in the words, the feeling that photographers have when they take these photographs. What does it feel like? I am often asked, “What’s it like to be there?” I think through the pictures and perhaps through some of my descriptions I can give you a sense [of] what it is like to be there just as you take the photograph. The second is a little more practical – I would like to give you an indication of some of the frustrations that a space photographer faces in the environment in which he or she is working. In some cases they are quite different [from] here on Planet Earth. Some of them are perplexing, some are amusing. They are funny to everyone but space photo curators here on Earth. Although all of these problems are problems faced by photographers here on the surface of the Earth, they are somehow compounded in the comical zero gravity of space. And, finally, the third impression that I would like to leave with you is the sense of, when the photography works, what sorts of things we can really capture. I will say, at this point, that the photos are good – in some cases, excellent. But, like photos of anything, it’s not quite the same as being there.
The space journey begins in a modern spaceship. This is a launch - a somewhat different launch photo. Some of the more traditional ones are in the exhibition. The two solid rockets each are generating about two-million pounds of thrust, and the three main engines each are generating about a half-a-million pounds. The vehicle goes outbound, first starting straight up. I’m obliged because of my past profession to include a little physics here. The acceleration is such that the astronauts and all the camera gear, everything inside, weighs three times its normal weight. So, each of you can do your own calculation. You would weigh three times your normal weight. You would be seated but lying on your back because the chairs are mounted to the floor of the flight deck and the flight deck is nearly vertical here. And, so you are lying on your back, weighing three times your normal weight for a period of eight and a half minutes.
The first part of the journey is extraordinarily loud. The sound drops off a bit when the solid rockets are jettisoned after two minutes’ time, but the acceleration continues. Then the engines shut down and within about a quarter-of-a-second you go from weighing three times your weight to weighing your weight times zero. You are weightless. You have traveled to the edge and on purpose done something that we are told the sailors aboard Colombus’s ships were very fearful of – sailing toward the edge of the Earth and falling off on purpose. You have accelerated towards the edge of the Earth, shut down your engines and you are now in perpetual free-fall. You float from that time on and you coast in orbit about the Earth. It’s that environment in which we live and work and in which we take photos. We use quite ordinary cameras. We use Nikons, Hasselblads, Linhofs and others. And they are off-the-shelf cameras, by and large. In the zero gravity you don’t have to hold it. You just put your finger on it and push the shutter release.
Taking space photos in the interior of the spacecraft is exactly like taking photos here. By the way, the inside of the spaceship is very much like a shit. It looks like an airplane on the outside, but don’t be fooled. The inside is very ship-like. It’s silent. You can talk easily. You can hear an occasional hum of electronics, electric motors. You hear an occasional hissing of air being vented into the cabin. But, otherwise it is as quiet as can be. No loud airplane noise at all. You can hear the ship from time to time creak against various ventings external and various forces put on the ship by perhaps a rocket sixty feet away from you that causes the ship to shiver and creak as though it were a vessel on an ocean – very un-airplane-like.
There are two windows that look out on the payload bay as one would look out through the back windows on your Texas pickup truck. And two that look out through the ceiling. The windows are three panes thick. And, so already from a photographer’s point of view, it’s a bit of a complication. And the sills are thick. It’s easy to see a sight out of the window but be confounded by the thickness of the sill. You can’t get yourself positioned to take a good photograph. You are also floating toward the windows with the cameras. After twenty-four hours in orbit there will be nose smudges all over.
Are the windows clear? Well, sometimes, but not always. It had been made a bit dirty on one of the windows because of the launch. And to add insult to injury, after one day in orbit we obviously got hit by a small meteorite – a very high energy impact that clouded it. And, so, sometimes the windows are not as clean as you might like, and it’s considered very bad form to go outside to wipe the windows. Reflection. There are lights on inside the spaceship, and it’s often very dark outside. And, again, it’s like taking photographs through windows – it’s not always as easy as one might think. In one situation, I was floating up to the back window looking out at the tail. And, already you begin to get a hint of what’s out there. The colors and light are dramatic in the extreme, and I cannot underscore that enough. The colors are often very stark. The light is so bright that the otherwise gray, dirty orbiter looks brilliantly white. The Earth in direct sunshine is very, very bright. Space is as dark, as black, as anything you can imagine. Picture yourself at the bottom of a cave, your eyes open – space is that black. And, in the daytime part of the orbit, there is no hint of stars in the blackness of space. Again, because I should say our eyes to not have the latitude to see both the very faint stars against the brilliant surfaces lighted by the direct sunlight. Often it looks like black-and-white film to both your eye and to the camera itself as you look out.
We travel from daylight to darkness every forty-five minutes. And this is a photograph taken as one crosses the terminator. We have come from the daylight part of the Earth into the darkness. And a scene like this would exist only for about four or five seconds because the spaceship is about to “set” behind the Earth and all this light is now gone. You see the lighted part of the Earth here and the dark part of the Earth here. And the beautifully illuminated tail end of the orbiter. This happens to be little bits of moisture, of ice, that have been aggregated because we have done a rocket burn fairly recently.
A photograph of Planet Earth. It’s perhaps more natural or intuitive to show the picture rocked ninety-degrees to the right, but keep in mind that we’re floating as we take this picture. There is no up or down. The orbiter does not coast around the Earth with its wings level because it’s not an airplane. It need not be pointed end forward. And, for that reason, one does not look outside the ship, through the windows, and expect to see Earth below the wings. The Earth can be anywhere. It depends upon mission profile and the attitude of the spaceship. The “attitude” is a technical word, not a psychological word. It refers to the direction it points. But Earth is very rarely below the wings. Earth is just there. As you look at it physically – I should say intellectually you know that you are, as a photographer, speeding around the Earth towards the east at the velocity that I have mentioned already. You travel once around Planet Earth every hour and a half. Even so, you could convince yourself that you are just floating and that the Earth is turning for your viewing pleasure. You have no way of knowing for a fact, other than having been a student of the laws of physics, that the Earth is turning and you are still or vice-versa. The actual fact is that we are moving and the Earth itself is turning with us.
A few words about going outside the spaceship. I’ve talked so far about taking photos inside. It’s possible to take the cameras outside. This is a photograph taken I believe with a camera that’s outside, but the exposure was not correct and notice that the film was burned because of the very bright direct sunlight shining on a satellite named Westar.
The bright sun is not yet on the satellite called Earth – a satellite of the sun. But there is still bright sun on a satellite and a fellow astronaut called Dale Gardner who is moving up towards the satellite Westar in order to salvage it.
This photograph taken from inside the ship shows me and Dale Gadner. I’m carrying a camera. Hard to believe. The camera is just off to the side. This is a good photo. It’s also a bad photo. It’s bad because notice the internal reflection off the window takes from it a bit. This is also internal reflection. There’s a reason it’s not particularly clear there.
On this particular frozen slice of time I was on the robot arm. My feet are firmly affixed in almost nothing at all. And, this is the Pacific Ocean. Dale has fetched the satellite Westar. He is bringing it back to me. I have been asked wasn’t I rather brave to fasten on to what in effect is about 2,500 pounds of mass. And, I will tell you from this vantage point I would have grabbed anything that came past!
I thought you’d be interested in this image. It’s taken under unusual conditions because I have with me a camera, 35 mm, outside the spaceship. And, it is extraordinary, but it’s an off-the-shelf camera. Not one thing has been done to it except it has been enclosed in a little snowsuit of sorts – a white little wrapping goes around it to keep the film at a reasonable temperature.
And, this is what one sees from the vantage point of the arm. This is the open hatch. This is the air lock that comes from the mid-deck. Dale Gardner and I have come out through the open hatch. There is a rather solid door that has been moved inside and is there on the floor of the airlock. This rather floppy cloth is not what keeps all the air in. The trick in airlock is to have two people in there in space suits and open the door into yourself and the same time to come out.
This photo brings us toward the end of a journey. One returns from space by changing one’s velocity by only 2000 miles-per-hour – not very much considering the very high velocity of 18,000 miles-per-hour. But it changes the shape of the orbit. And, that leads us to another physics lecture, which I won’t be permitted to deliver. With the change in shape of the orbit, the ship then is no longer a spaceship but must be an airplane because it’s going to start to hit the atmosphere. And, at that point, it is very important to put the pointed end forward, and the wings level.
Here is a photograph of the burn. We call it the ohms burn. And, it is a particular favorite of mine. The reason being that all astronauts are brave and give no indication of being frightened. But, the first time I saw an ohms burn I though the back of the ship had blown off. Nobody had mentioned to me that it made an enormous flash of light. The flash lasts only for a tenth-of-a-second and then the rocket burns in a very steady way, completely colorless, without sound – like a powerful magic force moving the spaceship. I tried on all my missions to take a photograph of the flash of the ohms ignition, and of all my attempts this is the only one that came out. But, I’m very pleased – it’s proof that an amateur photographer can get an occasional good picture, exactly as a blind pig will find an occasional turnip.
A photograph coming home. We are now in the airplane coming down through the atmosphere across the night side of Planet Earth. Many of you know that the ship begins to glow outside. This [photo] is taken through the windows. The glow begins very, very gradually – very deep orange and gets brighter and brighter. At the same time you begin to hear the sound of the win. And, you begin for the first time in days to feel weight. And, it’s just the slightest bit of tingling on parts of your anatomy that you have felt nothing for days. The skin feels prickly as though it has been asleep but now begins to revive, and you realize that you are on your way home. All the while, the light builds outside, your weight increases, the sound of the wind increases, and to fly home in the orbiter is like flying down an endless neon tube. The brighter light outside, the lights of the dials, the helmet in this case of Vance Brand as he flies the spaceship Columbia home.
An image that is really not shown anywhere. This was taken through the top window. This is the flow as it comes around the orbiter, and it projects above the vertical stabilizer. It’s enormous and it looks like a shrouded figure – almost like a helmeted Darth Vader with the cape coming out, and it waxes and wanes. It comes out and is very brilliant right at the neck. And, we can look out the back and see that. We refer to it as the “God of Good, Solid Engineering.”
The last photo – famous indeed – and well it should be – twenty-five years ago this photograph was taken. Some day we’ll return to the Moon. I’m not certain exactly when it will take place. But, this is the kind of where my thoughts began on the way to space. We caught sight of the Earth – and what an extraordinary sight it can be.
I say, as a footnote – an understanding and appreciation of photography travels very well on these long journeys, and they can add immeasurably to the pleasure that you, the space traveler, take in the journey, and I hope that it adds immeasurably tot you, the space viewer on the ground, that can enjoy these slices of space travel after the fact.

Joseph P. Allen currently serves as President and Chief Executive Officer of Space Industries International, a technology-based company serving government and private industry.