Its A Living: Exploring the Next Frontier

By Harrison Jacobs

ECLIPSE OF THE SUN: The annular solar eclipse of May 20, 2012 casts a shadow on earth, as photographed from the International Space Station at 23:35 GMT.

Donald Pettit’s life is a bit like that of a sailor. He goes on long voyages, spends his days maintaining the ship and doing experiments, and when he’s done, he spends off-duty time making pictures. There’s just one small wrinkle: Pettit works in space as a U.S. astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS), a joint initiative of NASA, the Russian space agency Roscosmos, the European Space Agency and the space agencies of Canada and Japan. Seven months ago, Pettit returned from his third space mission, and although he loves being home, like any true sailor, he’s itching to get back out on another adventure.

City Lights: The colorful yellowish streaks in this image are from night time urban lighting on earth. The range of hues is caused by differences in the color temperature of the lighting. The green line on the distant horizon is an example of airglow.

The Photographic Scientist
Pettit is not a photographer in the professional sense, nor has he ever been. He’s a NASA astronaut and a chemical engineer. However, throughout his career, Pettit has made a habit of utilizing cameras in his every profession. Pettit is an explorer and a scientist; for him, the camera is as much an observational tool as it is a means of producing art.

On the space station, Pettit has become known for producing uncommonly beautiful photographs of various phenomena, from polar mesospheric or noctilucent clouds (a recently discovered meteorological phenomenon that may be connected to climate change) to nighttime views of illuminated cities (according to him, one of the most beautiful views he’s seen from space). Photos of stars from his last space mission, what he calls Star Trail images, went viral this past summer. These look like images from a brightly colored future—streaks of lines and concentric circles hovering over a luminescent earth. While all of Pettit’s images  may look like beautiful postcards from space to the layman, there is important and useful scientific data hidden within, which he and other ISS crew members can use to learn about earth and the solar system.

360 View: Seven windows are filled with cameras, all set up differently. Earth goes by fast when traveling 24,000 miles in 90 minutes, so cameras are always on.

Experiments and “Happy Snaps”

Pettit obtained his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, when he was ten years old. This simple device with a fixed shutter speed, aperture and focus was enough for Pettit to fall in love with photography “I just became enthralled with the process of taking pictures and the development and the printing,” he explains. As soon as he could afford it, Pettit moved from the Brownie to a 35mm camera, and given his deep passion for science, it’s no surprise that the camera became a means of recording his observations.

“My older brother and I made a high-speed flash,” says Pettit. “We started recording all kinds of things—glass bottles being broken, high-speed pictures of hummingbirds, pictures of bees flapping their wings.” While Pettit moved on from backyard experiments with broken bottles, the camera never left his side. College took him to Oregon State University, where he majored in chemical engineering and cemented his passion in the sciences. While there, Pettit began working with some of the professors in the chemical engineering department and found a niche for himself doing technical photography. He would shoot high-speed photographs and movies of experiments that the faculty would run in the chemical reactors. His photographs became not only “happy snaps” (Pettit’s term for artistic or aesthetically pleasing photographs) but also a means of collecting scientific data.

Stormy Weather: The white spots covering the streaks of urban lighting along the earth’s surface are thunderstorms seen from above.

Turning Art into A Dataset
Since the ISS became operational in 2000, approximately 1.5 million photographs have been taken on the station. According to Pettit, about a third of those photographs (or around 500,000) were taken by him and other crew members during their past six-month mission, the vast majority being made during off-duty time. It’s easy to sympathize with Pettit and his crew; any photographer knows how addicting shooting is in an exotic environment. However, for Pettit, there is another motive. When he and his crew make images, they are recording data—data that will help them understand the elusive phenomena they document.

Pettit does not want to shoot just happy snaps. While he loves making photographs that are artistic or awe-inspiring, he believes that with a little extra work, he can do that while also producing scientific data sets. On Pettit’s last mission, he began photographing the phenomenon of upper atmospheric airglow. Airglow is the faint emission of light by the earth’s atmosphere; because of this, the night sky is never completely dark. While Swedish scientist Anders Angstrom first observed airglow in 1868, what Pettit discovered while photographing on the space station was that airglow also contained spatial distribution and structure. Scientists previously assumed airglow was simply a large glowing mass above the atmosphere, but Pettit’s photographs prove differently. In order to cull real scientific information from the photos, Pettit began shooting the airglow every time the ship passed the phenomena in orbit, for dozens of orbits at a time and using different focal lengths. In addition, he and other crewmember photographers would keep a “lab notebook,” with the date, the time and other useful observations such as the estimated angular field of view.

“That’s the difference between just taking a bunch of pictures and having a scientific data set,” he explains. “The difference in effort is not that great.”

Android Encounter: A seventh “android” crew member is photographed inside the U.S. Lab module with Pettit’s favorite lens for cramped quarters, an AF-S NIKKOR 8mm Fisheye.

Making the NASA Cut
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Pettit went on to achieve a doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of Arizona. After the completion of his studies, he spent 12 years as a staff scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, working on such complex experiments as the investigation of reduced gravity fluid flow, atmospheric spectroscopy on noctilucent clouds via seeding rockets and attempts to solve problems in detonation physics.

Given his résumé, one might think Pettit would be a quick pick for NASA’s space program. He recalls the application process in a positive light, although not without a sense of exhaustion. He first applied for the astronaut program in 1983 and was finally accepted in 1996. “During that 13-year period, I was rejected three times. The last time was a charm,” he says with a laugh.

To say the application process was difficult is an understatement. Astronaut selections happen about every two years. For each selection, NASA receives an average of 3,000 applications to fill approximately 20 spots. For those keeping score at home, that’s approximately a 0.67 percent acceptance rate (Harvard clocks in at 6 percent for the lowest college undergraduate acceptance rate). NASA gives few guidelines for what they are seeking in a candidate. For that reason alone, the process can be difficult and discouraging. If they reject your application, you’ll receive a generic rejection letter familiar to anyone involved in the college application process (“Thank you very much for applying. Due to the very large number of highly qualified applicants”). They give no direction as to why the application was rejected or how to become a more attractive candidate. Pettit likens it to “salmon swimming up the river,” or, if one were scientifically minded, one might call the process NASA’s “natural selection.”

From the Cat Bird Seat: Pettit made this exterior of the International Space Station (ISS) from the seven windowed cupola, his favorite vantage point for photography. Astronauts photographing on the ISS are faced with an added challenge, in that hard drives are especially subject to failure in space, so image files must be transmitted to Earth without delay.

Life on the Space Station
After his selection in 1996, Pettit trained for eight years before getting his first space mission as NASA’s space station science officer on the ISS Expedition 6 in 2002. He spent six months on the ISS and worked on a blend of scientific and engineering research and space station maintenance projects (including two external spacewalks, or EVAs, to install scientific equipment).

While working for NASA is a full-time job, even on that first expedition, Pettit realized his unique opportunity to deliver scientific data to an American population that no longer watched launches to “the final frontier” with bated breath. In addition to his photography, Pettit used his free time to do a video series called “Saturday Morning Science,” which he has described as “fun experiments of his design.” On his most recent six-month space expedition, from December 2011 to July 2012, Pettit continued his video series, this time with a bit more humor to engage the YouTube generation. These include Pettit performing yo-yo tricks to demonstrate inertia in a zero gravity environment and slingshotting Angry Birds dolls through modules to demonstrate angles and parabolic force.

If that sounds a bit whimsical to you, it should. Pettit’s humor is what strikes you when you hear him speak for the first time, whether in one of his You-Tube videos, during a phone interview or at a public lecture such as Photoshelter’s Luminance Conference, where we met him last fall. Indeed, there is a long tradition of wit and whimsy among scientists. For those with a sense of history, one is reminded of Einstein’s layman’s explanation of relativity—“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour…Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity!” Einstein is said to have joked.

Space Monsters: During a lecture at PhotoShelter’s Luminance Conference, Pettit explained that shadows in space are really stark and difficult to photograph. “But, sometimes you can use the shadows to your advantage,” he notes. “I sent this picture home to my boys and said, “We found godzilla in space.” Check out a video of Pettit’s lecture here.

Just Another Camera Geek
According to a 2008 New York Times article, Pettit is known among the astronaut corps as “a uncommonly gifted handyman.” Captain Christopher J. Ferguson, the commander on Pettit’s first space mission, referred to him as “a point-and-shoot weapon.”

On the ISS, Pettit used scrap parts from a camera mount and hand drill to create a sophisticated “barn door tracker,” which allowed him to photograph cities at night with significantly more detail than had been possible previously. Past images from space depicted cities such as Los Angeles or New York as overexposed white blobs, however—thanks to Pettit’s invention—more recent astronaut images contain greatly increased structure and detail, so that areas such as Central Park or Los Angeles suburbs actually appear dark, instead of the entire area being an oversaturated mass of light.

While in space, Pettit and the other crew members have access to more than 20 camera bodies, a mix of Nikon D3Ss and D2Xs and dozens of lenses. While many of the other crew members prefer using telephoto lenses for their space images, Pettit prefers wide-angle views, which let him pull off oblique photographs of earth that no satellite can take. This is how he’s captured his most intriguing images of ephemeral phenomena such as atmospheric air glow and noctilucent clouds.

During his most recent mission, Pettit had access to a DSLR modified to shoot in the near infrared spectrum (done by removing the IR blocking filter). It was the first time astronauts had been able to record infrared imagery since NASA stopped flying film to the station in 2003. This proved invaluable for shooting a number of phenomena that was otherwise impossible to see.

Pettit notes that many satellites can record infrared data, with a main purpose of documenting the relative health of farmland, jungles and agriculture, because plant material is so visible in the infrared spectrum. However, for Pettit, recording infrared data of the things these satellites are not designed to capture (such as wide-angle oblique views of the earth or the middle of the ocean) produces all different kinds of interesting and potentially valuable results.

“That’s an example of human beings and robots,” he explains. “You need the human being to take the stranger observations, and you need the satellite robot to collect tons and tons of data.”

Science off the Sphere: From December 2011 to July 2012, NASA Astronaut Donald Pettit spent 193 days on the international space station, orbiting the earth 3,088 times. During off-duty time, he recorded a 14-episode video series called Science off the Sphere. From electric didgeridoos to microgravity goo, Pettit demonstrated what’s possible when you’re more than 200 miles above the earth. In the final episode, Pettit practices his micro-gravity yo-yo skills. To watch the video in our digital edition, click here.




PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



Tout VTS



Contact PDN | About Photo District News | Camera Reviews and Gear Guide | Photography Blog | Photo News | Photo Magazine- Print Subscription |
Photography RSS Resources | Free Photography Newsletter | Photo Magazine Advertising | Photographer Features & Resources | Stock Photographs
© 2016 Emerald Expositions, LLC. All rights reserved. Read our TERMS OF USE and PRIVACY POLICY