Hasselblad in Space
Small steps. Giant leaps.
There are few achievements in the history of man that rival our explorations into space. And few images as unifying, moving, and widely recognized as those photographs taken during these journeys. Photos that have changed the way we see our world and ourselves. Photos taken with Hasselblad cameras.
Few would deny that the now over four decades of space photography have given us a new worldview. No, the basic laws of science have not changed as a result of these images; no, the ideas of Kepler, Newton, and Einstein have not been eclipsed by photos from beyond our planet. However, these pictures from space have added new dimensions to our understanding of this, our own small section of the Milky Way. They have changed the way we view the universe and our part in it. They have made us feel small, made us feel large, and made us feel bound to one another as humans.
These photographs have enabled the average person to understand, in the blink of an eye, relationships which were previously the reserve of a tiny minority of experts. These images demand no previous knowledge, they don’t disqualify all the millions of people in the world who cannot read, and they are equally accessible to any and all who can see.
The beauty of these photos works intuitively and almost instantly. We see a picture of Earth, for instance, poised like a blue-green jewel against the black of space, we see its surprisingly thin layer of atmosphere, we look upon the whole of our planet and are struck by how delicate and small it appears.
This picture demands no specialist skills in meteorology or physics. It requires no deeper knowledge of ecological systems and trends. Intuitively, we understand that our planet’s system is a fragile one, something to be protected.
It goes without saying that the fifty years of photographs brought back from space have also given scientists and specialists a wealth of unique opportunities to deepen and extend their knowledge of our most immediate celestial neighbours. But our knowledge of our own planet has increased even more. Today, for example, we almost take it for granted that the Earth’s resources, environmental changes, and weather systems can be mapped in a completely different way than was possible before the debut of satellite pictures.
Back on Earth, back on the west coast of Sweden where Victor Hasselblad developed his famous camera, one can find a poetic parallel; there on the weathered stone of the Swedish archipelago, we find pictures from another age in the ascent of man. These rock-carvings, like the cave paintings in Europe before them and like the space images of our own time, also carried a message. They were also designed to convey thoughts, feelings, and information.
Not a lot has changed in that regard. It is up to us to interpret the images correctly, to take from them what they offer.
In the beginning
Over forty years ago, a then-unknown Walter Schirra entered a Houston photo supply shop and purchased a Hasselblad 500C. The camera was a standard consumer unit with a Planar f/2.8, 80 mm lens. Schirra was a prospective NASA astronaut, one of the brightest and finest pilots of his time, a man with the “right stuff”. Thinking to take his new purchase up on a space shot with him, Schirra stripped the leatherette from the body of the Hasselblad and painted its metal surface black in order to minimise reflections. And when he climbed aboard a Mercury rocket in October 1962, he took his Hasselblad with him. Once in space, he documented the wonder and awe-inspiring beauty he saw around him. He took the first space photographs using his consumer model Hasselblad. Thus began the first page in a new chapter in the history of Hasselblad and photography and a long, close, and mutually beneficial cooperation between the giant American space agency and the small Swedish camera manufacturer.
It is interesting to note that when astronaut Walter Schirra brought that first Hasselblad camera into space, it was the only product in the space capsule that had not been custom-built for the mission. The only changes made were that the camera body was stripped down. That camera, sent into space, into a completely alien environment, to take pictures of sights that no human eye had seen before, was sent with the standard lens and film magazine. On returning to earth, it was found that the technical performance of the camera equipment had been just as Victor Hasselblad expected – flawless. NASA had not previously realised or emphasised the importance of photographic documentation of its space shots. After seeing the quality of the photographs that Schirra brought back to earth, however, it was clearly apparent how vital such images were to the project as a whole.
NASA’s photo department grew rapidly and became a focal point for a string of experts including photo technicians, laboratory technicians, and America’s foremost photo interpreters. Liaisons were also established between a wide range of diverse institutions that were interested in pictures from space for a variety of reasons. NASA’s contact with the Swedish camera manufacturer broadened. In turn, Hasselblad modified and refined its cameras to make them even more suitable for space use, experimenting with different constructions and lenses. For many years, for instance, NASA was determined to cut every superfluous gram from the payload, meaning that the Hasselblads onboard were forced to be as lightweight and lean as absolutely possible. And still maintain the famous Hasselblad quality. And this they did.
A number of different camera models were put to use, all suited for the rigorous demands of space travel. The images that the astronauts took with the boxy, black Hasselblads have become true classics. And the moments they captured were not just inspiring, they were historic. During the Gemini IV mission in 1965, for example, the first space walk was made. And with Hasselblad in hand, James A. McDivitt took a series of pictures of his space-walking colleague, Edward H. White. These pictures were quickly published in leading magazines around the world.
People were surprised over the amazing sharpness of the photos produced by the Hasselblads. And while the layperson might have been impressed by the quality of the final images – and justifiably so – they did not perhaps give too much thought to the demands that space travel made upon the cameras and their reliability. The cameras had to work perfectly under the most trying conditions, over 120° C in the sun, and minus 65° C in the shade. Not to mention the lack of gravity and a myriad of unknown hazards. And the cameras had to work with absolute consistency. Each and every shot was a historic treasure, a once in a lifetime opportunity that would never be able to be captured again. And time and time again, Hasselblad met the challenge. With a range of different cameras.
In 1966, a Hasselblad SWC with a Zeiss Biogon 38mm ƒ/4.5 lens was used for the first time on Gemini 9. The Hasselblad 500EL had its space debut aboard Apollo VIII, which made 10 orbits around the Moon on June 1, 1969. And when the Apollo XI actually landed on the Moon, signifying man’s first steps off our own planet and the realisation of a dream almost as old as man himself, Hasselblad was there. A Hasselblad 500EL Data Camera with Reseau plate, fitted with a Zeiss Biogon 60mm ƒ/5.6 lens, was chosen for the job. The journeys home from the moon made very special demands on what could return regarding weight, etc. So, having fulfilled their mission, a total of thirteen cameras were deemed as an encumbrance and therefore left behind. Only the film magazines containing the precious latent images were brought back. The still shots from that mission are even more widely known than the film sequences. Truly, the list of classic images that came from these missions is almost endless; a single man hovering in the blackness of space, the earth-rise as seen from the moon, the solitary, dramatic shape of man’s first steps on the lunar surface… These images, perhaps more than any of our time, captured the history of mankind in the making.
They stand as a testament to the power of the captured image. And to Hasselblad’s ability to capture them.
Pushing the envelope
Since those first missions into space, Hasselblad has been on every manned NASA space flight mission, and has seen many changes – to the spacecraft, space programs, and crew. During the 1980’s, the space shuttle program almost made trips into outer space a mundane occurrence. The less rigorous conditions on the shuttles placed less physical demands on the crew, allowing lay people to join the ranks of humans in space. The spacecraft and astronauts may have been new, but Hasselblad was still there, snapping away, capturing the history of our species as it happened. And while the conditions had become more “user-friendly” in certain ways, the demands on space cameras became, if anything, even more rigorous.
And on journey after journey, Hasselblad cameras met the demands, taking on average between 1,500 and 2,000 photographs on each shuttle mission. And just as the remarkable pictures of man at work on the surface of the moon during the Apollo missions defined its era, a succession of fine pictures of astronauts at work in and around the reusable spacecraft of the eighties defined man’s continued exploration of the universe around us. And our preparations for even further journeys.
And all the barriers broken were not physical. When man first entered the space race, the demands on the individuals and equipment were unsurpassed. A special few were chosen to brave the unknowns of space. One of the shining young men chosen, the best of the best, who had what author Tom Wolfe termed “the right stuff” was astronaut John Glenn. Glenn made his first space trip in February 1962 onboard Friendship 7 and later went on to enter politics after his NASA career and eventually became a respected United States Senator.
Then, in 1998 the seventy-seven-year-old John Glenn once again crossed the final frontier. He and six fellow astronauts soared into space aboard the shuttle Discovery from Florida’s Cape Canaveral. Glenn’s return to space 36 years after his first heroic mission makes him not just a true American hero, but also the oldest person who has ever gone into space.
While on the shuttle Discovery, 345 miles above the Earth, 83 experiments were performed and, as on all manned American space missions since October 1962, the crew used Hasselblad camera equipment for the photographic documentation. All in all, the space shuttle carried five Hasselblad 553ELS cameras, around fifty Hasselblad 70mm magazines, a variety of Carl Zeiss lenses (50-250mm), and a range of RM2 reflex viewfinders, which were originally developed specifically for space use. Some differences naturally existed between the cameras sent into space and the ones intended for use on earth. These differences included the removal of the TTL flash function, and the replacement of conventional lubricants, which would evaporate in a vacuum, with low friction materials. The leatherette covering was also removed and replaced by metal plates.
The evolution of the cameras works in both directions, however. The 553ELS, for instance, is a perfect example of the ongoing benefit that the Hasselblad/NASA collaboration brought back to earth from every mission. The 553ELS was the space version of the 553ELX model, which had been available to consumers through normal retail channels for years. This camera adopted several key features and improvements originating from the ELS space camera, such as the improved mirror mechanism, which increased the durability and reliability of the reflex operation.
Into the great unknown
For over four decades now, Hasselblad has supplied camera equipment to the NASA space program. That’s no small achievement for a camera that was built to satisfy photographers who have both feet firmly on the ground.
The demands that were originally made by NASA upon its astronauts are now part of modern mythology. The men who met these demands became legends in their own time. The same can perhaps be said for the cameras these men took with them. NASA and its astronauts wanted a camera of the absolute highest quality, a camera that would work under the most extreme conditions imaginable, a camera that would be able to do justice to the majesty and importance of the images to be captured. Clearly, they got what they were looking for.
The long collaboration between NASA and Hasselblad is witness to that fact. If Hasselblad’s cameras had not shown “the right stuff”, their presence in space would not have been so long-lived. And now, with the past century and its achievements behind us, we see that some of the most published pictures of our time were taken not on earth, but somewhere in space. Taken with a Hasselblad camera. It is impossible to count how many times pictures of our planet taken from space have been used to illustrate articles on the conditions upon Mother Earth, to advertise a company’s international operations, or suggest a global perspective. These images have become part of our common vocabulary. They have enabled us to easily understand the reality of things that were almost undreamt of a few generations earlier.
And the journey continues. On the 11th of October, 2001, NASA sent the space shuttle Discovery into space. The main aim of the space mission was to transport modules to the permanent ‘space station’, which would be the base for other journeys to more distant parts of the solar system. As usual, the astronauts used Hasselblad camera equipment for the photographic documentation.
This mission also introduced a new Hasselblad space camera. This new camera was a focal-plane shutter camera based on the standard 203FE version. It was equipped with a special version of the Winder CW. The film magazines used 70mm perforated film and were equipped with data imprinting along the edge of the film frame, enabling the recording of time and picture number for each exposure. Since the computers onboard had full control over the position of the shuttle, it was fairly easy to identify exactly which spot on the earth the picture was taken over.
Naturally, some of the cameras had been modified to cope with the vacuum conditions outside the spacecraft and there were also special requirements regarding material, lubricants, and reliability. In addition, the electronics of the camera had been modified to meet NASA’s special demands for handling and function. The lenses had also been reconstructed for space and the focusing and aperture rings were equipped with large tabs to facilitate handling in the zero gravity, large gloved reality that awaits space travellers.
And, if history serves as our teacher, it won’t be long until we see the benefit of these “space modifications” on cameras here on earth.
And now, as Man once again turns his sights into the far reaches of the universe, as we hear more and more talk of manned missions to Mars, we almost take it for granted that Hasselblad will be there, capturing yet another monumental step for mankind and making it available to all of us below. Preserving history and exploring the future.
And when the time comes, when space travel truly does become commonplace, perhaps the first tourists to the moon will make a curious discovery. Perhaps they will find one of the dozen or so cameras that were left behind. The astronauts returning with only the valuable film magazines and the cameras´ weight in moon dust. And perhaps these galactic tourists will then turn their own eyes down to the emerald planet, snapping yet another image of our common home with one of the cameras that first brought us the vision to begin with. Who knows? The future, as they say, is a very large place.
From our first space journey on Oct. 3, 1962, Hasselblad cameras have played an integral part in the space program, capturing the images that help us to understand our world and its surroundings. There are a range of special modifications and improvements required to meet the stringent demands of space travel. We then apply the knowledge and expertise we gain in space and bring it back to earth, further improving the Hasselblad line. All to ensure that we continue to provide the finest photographic equipment on – or off – the planet.