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Meet the Astronaut with the World's Best Collection of Outer Space Photographs

Don Pettit has spent over a year of his life in outer space. When he first went into orbit in 2002, he and the NASA team took around 56,000 pictures. “At that time nobody had ever taken that many pictures during a Space Station mission,” he told me recently. “Most folks were taking maybe two to three thousand pics during a six-month stay.” On a subsequent six-month expedition, Petit and his team took around 500,000 pictures. As a result, Petit probably knows more than anyone about the unique challenges of photography in outer space. “You get to see things that are a little different, the length scale of half a continent,” he said. “You get to see sunrises and sunsets and moons and planets a length scale of 4,000 kilometers, harsh shadows, sunlight.”

Courtesy of Don Pettit
Star Trails

Most space photography is used purely for documenting data. “A lot of the pics we take for NASA are technical pictures of wires and cables and things like that, and they’re needed pictures, but they’re not exactly what you’d call an art form,” said Petit, giving a lecture at PhotoPlus Expo in New York. He wore pressed khaki pants and a tie patterned by mathematical formulas and diagrams.  “I want to let people understand that you can take pictures in space that you can consider art. And I want to try and share the joys of this environment for people who don’t get the chance to go there.”

Courtesy of Don Pettit
View of the International Space Station
Courtesy of Don Pettit
Aurora Borealis

Petit first picked up a camera as a kid. “I started off with a little brownie camera, 120 film, and I do all my own development,” he said. “I was strictly black and white because that’s all I could afford ... Anyway, I’ve made photos, in particular technical photos, part of my life ever since.”

When Petit first went into orbit, he discovered that the rules of earthbound photography no longer applied. He had to rethink photographic basics in order to make the invisible visible, capture the wider range of light and colors found in space, and reveal the face of Earth and her surroundings. “You have to adapt to the phenomena in your environment,” he said. “Here on earth sunset lasts for two minutes. In space, it lasts seven seconds and so you have to be quick.” When shooting in space, you also have to mind reflections off the windows: You’re typically taking photos through four panes of glass (they have anti-reflection coating but you still get reflections off of the inner panes). You also have instrument lights blinking all around you inside the Space Station: How do you eliminate or control them?

Or how do you shoot from the spaceship’s cupola, a dome with seven windows pointing towards the Earth? In order to minimize the reflections on the metal and glass, Pettit covers all the shiny instruments and equipment around him with black cloth. Then he sticks his head and camera through an opening in the sheet."I’d tie it around the base of the cupola. I close the shutters on the windows to protect the glass from micrometeorites, you get zinged all the time by bits of space debris, fortunately nothing like in the movie Gravity," he adds.

Courtesy of Don Pettit
Shooting from the cupola 1
Courtesy of Don Pettit
Shooting from the cupola 2

When most of us think of space photography, we think of satellite pictures. They make for an interesting comparison with Pettit’s work. At the PhotoPlus lecture, he put a Google Earth photo of New York City beside one of his own. “Satellites are designed with their orbital period in mind, so when taking a picture you’re always over the local ground at noon time,” he said. “So the Manhattan pic shows no shadows, no detail. Because if you’re doing cartography, you want to see things without shadows. It’s not engineered for aesthetics and art.” In his own photo, taken with low angle light, you see the shadows, and projections of buildings. There’s a different dimension, and a brighter quality.  

Courtesy of Google Earth, Courtesy of Don Pettit
Above: Google Earth image, Below: Don Pettit's image

Pettit ended his presentation by presenting a kind of paradox. He explained that “the kind of people that classically go into frontiers, settled the new world, the kind that went from the east coast going west, were typically the derelicts, the outcasts of society. And I think photographers kind of fall into that category too because they always seem to go into the wilderness to do things. To become an astronaut, you have to be a conformist. You can’t be a social derelict and get into the astronaut program, so the very kinds of people we’re sending into the space frontier are not attuned to the kinds of people we’ve classically sent into the frontiers. Except for my crew,” he added with a grin. Unlike the traditional crew shots where everyone’s in a horizontal row, this is how Petit’s crew posed.

Courtesy of Don Pettit
Don Pettit's I.S.S. crew

“For me, being on the frontier is like a breath of fresh air,” he told me later. “Even though you’re in a vacuum, it’s like being in a breath of fresh air. I love being away from it all, I love being in the frontier and like all frontiers they are not without risk, and you have to understand the risks and be comfortable with them […] We on this planet are just a little fly speck in this cosmos.”

Courtesy of Don Pettit

Maïa Booker is the photo editor at The New Republic. Follow Maïa @maiabooker