High Concept: Captain Scott Kelly's Images From the International Space Station

Captain Scott Kelly in the EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit) spacesuit that provides life support and communication during Earth orbit EVA (extravehicular activity).

It's an awesome photo opportunity from a unique vantage point.

Of course, photography was not the main reason Captain Scott Kelly was on the International Space Station (ISS), but because we made the camera he used (it was a D4), and because we've been a supplier of photo gear to NASA from the very beginning, we thought we'd establish the photo angle right from the start.

By now you most likely know the basics of the story: Captain Kelly commanded the International Space Station for a 340-day (often called year-long) mission from March, 2015, to February, 2016. During that time, and its 5,440 orbits around the Earth, he made three spacewalks, conducted scientific experiments, had a bit of fun and took a lot of pictures.

There are other stories, of course, including previous missions on the ISS, his career as a Navy fighter pilot and test pilot before joining NASA in 1996, and his role as pilot of the shuttle Discovery on a mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The primary reason for the year-long mission had to do with scientific research and documentation, but there was a special aspect to this time-in-space endurance test: the opportunity for testing, recording and comparing his vital statistics before and after the mission with those of his identical twin brother, Mark, who stayed on Earth.

Captain Kelly, now retired from NASA, wrote about his NASA years and the long ISS mission in his memoir, Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery.

With the photography angle in mind, we talked with him not long after his presentation at the Nikon booth at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show.

Space Shots

Photography was in Captain Kelly's life prior to NASA—"I had an old Nikon film camera I got when I was in college," he says, "but my involvement with photography was very minor. But when you become an astronaut, taking pictures is part of your job."

His first photo job in space was documenting the outside condition of the Hubble Space Telescope. After that there were, he says, "pictures for engineering and scientific purposes, pictures of hardware, pictures of the Earth for the scientific value of them."

His photography training came from NASA. "Over the years, I've had maybe one hundred hours of dedicated [photographic] training.

Just as NASA has a group to teach you about the main engines of the space shuttle, a group to teach you about science payloads and medical procedures, they have an equal organization that's responsible for all things regarding photo and video."

Despite his early photography, his knowledge of the basics was, he says, "not as much as you might think. The first photo class I took at NASA, when [the instructor] talked about aperture and said, 'Large number, small hole, large depth of field,' I didn't know that. So that's the level I was coming in at."

Practical and Purposeful

The photos he takes to document weather, climate and changes to the Earth are sometimes compared to previous images in order to measure activity. Other times those photos are used for assisting in disaster relief. "If there's a flood somewhere in the US, or elsewhere in the world, if the space station is in a good spot we'll take pictures, and those pictures will be sent to [aid] emergency response to that incident."

The year-long mission featured an experiment in which NASA was trying to find out if they could use ISS photographs to measure the development and wind speed of hurricanes. "It was very, very precise photography to get these pictures at certain angles," Captain Kelly says. Essentially, the ISS receives photo assignments from NASA. Sometimes it's weather, others times something less time sensitive.

"Some of the targets are for scientific purposes, so they have less urgency than a weather event. It'll be on our timeline [as] CEO Target—Crew Earth Observation Target. On our schedule we'll have a lot of information. It'll show old photos if they have them. It'll tell us what camera settings and what lens they think we should use. They'll show us a picture of the area and say, 'Okay this is what you'll see first, so you'll know [the target's] coming up.' It's almost like in the military, if you had a bombing target, but here it's photo bombing."

On the Personal Side

Photography from the ISS wasn't all scientific, specific or designated— there was another side to Captain Kelly's image making. "A lot of the other pictures I took are strictly taken for their esthetic value." And he doesn't care if those pictures were absolutely representational. "I wanted the picture to be something where someone says, 'You know what? I could hang that in a museum or an art gallery or put that up on a wall in my home.' "  

When we spoke to Captain Kelly he was in the process of editing images for a photo book of exactly those kinds of images—his personal expression of the unique point of view the ISS offered. It will be, he says, "more about the emotional pictures, not the scientific ones,"

The book, Infinite Wonder: An Astronaut's Photographs From a Year in Space, is scheduled to be published in October, 2018.

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