Views From Aloft: The Art of Space Photography

17:22 minutes

Self-portrait in the Cupola. Credit: Donald Pettit/NASA
Self-portrait in the Cupola. Credit: Donald Pettit/NASA

Astronaut Don Pettit took the millionth photo from the International Space Station. He also took hundreds of thousands of other photos. Many of them were routine photos taken during safety checks and engineering troubleshooting. But he shot a trove of others while off-duty, from the seven-windowed Cupola of the Space Station, capturing scenes both celestial and terrestrial.

Pettit has gathered some of his favorites in a new book, Spaceborne. He joins Ira to talk about the challenges of pursuing photography in space, what compels him to click the shutter, and why art has a place in an astronaut’s mission.

Star trails. Credit: Donald Pettit/NASA
Star trails. Credit: Donald Pettit/NASA


Segment Guests

Don Pettit

Don Pettit is a NASA astronaut at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. There’s a lot you might not know about astronaut Don Pettit. He plays the didgeridoo, he writes poetry about his experience while in orbit, and he’s yearning to return. And he’s taken hundreds of thousands of photos from the International Space Station, many mundane, others stunning works of art– black and white, infrared, wide angle views of the earth, blurred star trails above the earth, and more. He also took the one millionth photo from the International Space Station way back in 2012. He’s compiled some of his favorites in a new book Spaceborne, and you can see some of these photos on our website plus an article about the technique behind them, sciencefriday.com/spacephotos.

And here to talk about it is Don Pettit. He’s a NASA astronaut based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He’s flown three missions to the International Space Station. He’s lived there a total of 370 days. Good to have you back again, Don.

DON PETTIT: It’s always a pleasure, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about your photography hobby. Were you interested in photography before you went into space?

DON PETTIT: I started taking pictures when I was around in the sixth grade with a Kodak Brownie camera. I think it used 127 roll film, and I spent all my allowance money on black and white film and developed it in my mother’s darkroom that she had set up.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I had that camera, too. I think a few of us– from the article on our website by Chau Tu, the one I was referring to, I want to quote from you. You say, “The making of art is, I believe, an inevitable consequence of being human, and I hope my photographs illustrate that this happens even in space.”

DON PETTIT: That comment just sings to my heart. I think that human beings, ever since they were able to make a hand print on the ceiling of a cave, have been advancing art forms ever since that time.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. You know, I didn’t realize that astronauts actually get photo training as part of their mission training.

DON PETTIT: We do. We have a very astute group of folks that train us to use these cameras, and these are not simple cameras to use. These are fully professional cameras with lots of push buttons and controls, and you need to know, at least, how about 20% of them work and mostly for being able to take these prosaic engineering photos that document how the machinery is working on space station.

IRA FLATOW: Now, you set up a very elaborate photography platform on the space station. Tell us what you did there.

DON PETTIT: OK, this is called a barn door tracker by amateur astronomers, which is basically a piano hinge fastening two pieces of plywood together and a bolt that can hinge them apart. And you put a camera on that and line it up right, and you turn the bolt maybe a quarter of a turn every 10 seconds. And it will counteract earth’s motion, so the camera mounted to the board will track the stars, and you can take beautiful pictures of stars fields from Earth. And I basically built a similar apparatus on space station, so that I could be in space counteracting orbital motion to take pictures of Earth.

IRA FLATOW: Is there a little motor that turns that for you?

DON PETTIT: Instead of just turning the bolt by hand, I hooked it up to our battery powered drill driver, and then, I had a little telescope fastened onto the platform that I looked through. And when the images of cities at night were stationary in the telephoto lens, then I would snap pictures through a cable release with a camera that was also mounted on the platform.

IRA FLATOW: Now, a lot of astronauts, almost all the astronauts, are busy taking pictures. How do you, as a photographer, make your work stand out?

DON PETTIT: First, you have an amazing subject in which to take pictures of. The Earth and the vicinity around Earth, it’s almost a no-brainer. If you can make the exposure correct and you get in focus, you’re going to have a picture which will appeal to folks on Earth. And then it’s just a question of making a photograph composition so that you find it appealing, and it’s more on what you leave out, I believe, than what you put in.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Now, you have the distinction, as I said before, of having taken the one millionth photo from the space station. Do you remember what that was?

DON PETTIT: I do, and I think I passed it on to you folks, so you could put it on your website. But I want to point out that in the first 12 years of space station, all the crews put together had taken a half a million pictures, and then on my last mission, the six of us, total, took another half a million pictures. So that pushed it up to the 1 million mark, and that was July of 2012. And since then, we’ve just passed the 3 million mark.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s a lot of photos, and as Don has said, if you want to see the photos, they’re up there on our website at sciencefriday.com/spacephotos. Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Andrew in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Hi, Andrew.


IRA FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.

ANDREW: Just want to say, you know, I think Google Maps satellite view was the greatest thing ever invented. But seeing pictures actually taken from space, there’s just a difference, a sort of a verity to it, and my favorite photo ever was a volcano erupting on the Kamchatka Peninsula. I’m actually wondering if you ever got a chance to take a picture of a volcano while you were up there.

DON PETTIT: Yes, and there are volcanoes popping off practically any place on Earth at any one time. So there’s a volcano in Sicily, Etna, that seems to erupt every few weeks, and then, there are volcanoes, active volcanoes, in the Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile. And then, there are volcanoes in the Ring of Fire along the Pacific Rim, which was the one that you saw out of Kamchatka.

IRA FLATOW: Do you have a favorite area of Earth that you like to photograph?

DON PETTIT: Probably the favorite area of every astronaut happens to be the Caribbean, because the broad expanse of turquoise water is just totally amazing from orbit.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. While you’re taking photos, what are the other astronauts doing in their off-duty time?

DON PETTIT: There are a number of sort of orbital scrimshaw activities that you do on orbit, because we work really hard. We work 12 to 14 hour days, and you do that for six months in a row. And you need something to do for relaxation when you aren’t on duty, and it can vary from basket weaving, to quilting, to watching sports programs that are uplinked, taking pictures out the windows with photography equipment is another favorite pastime, and then, just doing little educational demonstrations on your own to show what an amazing environment this is and to get students fired up about math, and science, and engineering.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones to Joe in Oklahoma. Hi, Joe.

JOE: Hi.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there.

JOE: I love your show. I’m a biology major, and I also have a hobby in photography. Also from Oklahoma is a National Geographic photographer, Joel Satore, and I met him a few times. And back in the day, he would go through 100 to 200 rolls of film. And back then, it was maybe the best you could get was 18 megapixels, and he said you need at least 25 to match film. So my question is does he prefer film or digital?

DON PETTIT: OK, I started off with film, and I was reluctant to switch to digital. And now that I’ve switched to digital, I prefer the digital. The dynamic range on digital photography is greater than film, and with the megapixel densities we have on our detectors, we’re rivaling the resolution limit of what the lenses can offer and then, the instant satisfaction of being able to look at your picture and make changes and not have to wait a day or two. So I really like the digital expansion into photography.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I understand you got to attend a talk by Ansel Adams when you were at the University of Arizona, and he is very well known for his black and white photos. Did that influence you at all?

DON PETTIT: It has. At that point, I was mostly taking black and white photos. I was in graduate school and still affording color film was a little beyond my budget, and I could shoot black and white and develop myself and do it on the cheap. And listening to somebody, whose medium was also black and white, was fascinating, and listening to the detail that he paid attention to at the time of composition and when he took the picture I found amazing.

IRA FLATOW: The book you put out has a foreword by Alan Bean who is a painter now. Other astronauts have also taken up artistic pursuits. Nicole Stott retired from NASA to paint full-time. Chris Hadfield has an album. What is the link between spaceflight and the arts?

DON PETTIT: I think it is a means– art can be a means to share the experience, and photography is one medium, the music and painting are other mediums. We as space explorers have this amazing opportunity to go some place that most people on the planet can’t go to right now, and I believe we have an obligation to share that experience with everybody that’s still on the planet. And you realize that it’s the people on the planet that are paying for the hardware in which we ride on to get in to space, so it comes with an obligation to share the experience with those that make it all possible.

IRA FLATOW: You’re still an active astronaut. Are you looking forward, some day, to going back?

DON PETTIT: I am an active astronaut. I keep all my training up to date, and I’m in the pool of people from which flight assignments are made. And I’m really hoping I get another flight assignment, and time will tell whether that happens.

IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can get another phone call. Let’s go to Northern Virginia. Matt, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

MATT: Hi, thanks for having me. So I have a question. You’re talking a lot about merging the arts and sciences and giving that really surreal, almost, experience for folks on earth. A lot of people talk about astronauts experiencing what’s called– described as the over Earth effect where astronauts and people looking down on earth experience superconscious or a realization of a self above themselves. I’m wondering if you have any experience with that or talked with others who have and what your thoughts are on that?

DON PETTIT: What I can say about looking at Earth from space is that it reaffirms what your preexisting views are. That’s been my experience, and some of my poetry shows, I guess, what is going on inside of my brain when I look at the planet from space. And it’s hard to describe with words in a normal kind of essay.

IRA FLATOW: Can you read a little bit of your poetry for us?

DON PETTIT: I can, and this poem is called “Last Day in Space”, and I’ll read a few lines so that we can leave room for other folks to call in. It’s kind of a long poem. Here we go.

“Tomorrow we light our rocket, we burn our engines and likewise, burn a hole in the sky and fall to Earth. How does one spend your last day? Looking at Earth, a blue jewel surrounded by inky blackness, Occipital ecstasy. Unconstrained by your girth, you fly with vestigial wings. The atmosphere on edge, an iridescent blue with no earthly parallel, electrifying diaphanous beauty. Guarded by sirens of space, singing saccharine songs, beckoning you to crash on the atmos-reef, which tears you limb for limb and scorching what remains into cosmic croutons that sprinkle onto the garden salad of Earth.”

And maybe for a cliffhanger, Ira, I should stop right there.

IRA FLATOW: That was beautiful. Do you have a collection we can read more of?

DON PETTIT: I’ve got a lot of poetry, which is something that I primarily write for myself, because I like to read aback on occasion. And I’ve been kind of reluctant to bring it out in the open, because it does expose your personal feelings to the rest of the world and what that will bring. But I do have a lot of poetry, and eventually, I’ll be sharing it with folks.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with poet and astronaut Don Pettit. Before we go, I have to ask you, we were all saddened to hear about the passing of astronaut John Glenn yesterday. Did you ever get a chance to meet him?

DON PETTIT: I have on several occasions, particularly when he went back in training around 1998 for his second flight at age 77. And he was at the Johnson Space Center. He was flying the T-38s. He was in Building 9, where we have all the mockups, doing simulations. He was in Building 5 where we have the motion-based sims for asset and entry on the space shuttle. And we got to see him around the office. He’d come to pick up his mail just like all the other normal astronauts do. It was really neat to see a hero of mine just operating like all us other garden variety astronauts do.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, he put his pants one leg at a time on. The same– we had a chance to meet him in the early days of Science Friday. We were on Capitol Hill, and he made a comment with us on Capitol Hill. He had a dirty snowball, and he was very, very proud to help promote science, talk about science whenever he could.

DON PETTIT: Well, the whole foundation that allows us to travel into space to make the machines relies on math, science, and engineering, and if you don’t understand that and if you don’t have people that can work in that field, you’re not going to get off the planet.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Don, speaking of getting off the planet, we wish you well in your quest to get back into orbit. So Happy Holidays, good luck with the book, and thank you, again. It’s just beautiful, beautiful photos in the book, and as I say, it’s on our website, a sampling, sciencefriday.com/spacephotos. Thank you, Don Pettit.

DON PETTIT: It’s been a pleasure, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Don Pettit, NASA astronaut, who is joining us from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. After the break, we’re going to talk about a group of female astronomers in the early 20th century whose discoveries were key to our current understanding of the universe. A new book, Glass Universe, we’ll be right back with it after this break. Stay with us.

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