Launching skyward with Nikon and NASA

Our recent post around the launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour sparked so much interest, we thought you might like to hear a little more about the history between Nikon and NASA.

Our journey with NASA started back in 1971 when the Nikon Photomic FTN (which was a modified Nikon F camera) was used on the Apollo 15 mission – the fourth mission to land on the moon. Since then our kit has also made it onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981 and the Discovery mission in 1999. Nikon Professional Services (our organisation which provides valuable assistance for pros in every segment of the photography field), has been on-site for every Apollo and Space Shuttle launch ever since.

As we mentioned in our earlier post, we’re the only camera manufacturer with a permanent base at Cape Canaveral in Florida (where the Space Shuttle Endeavour was launched from), so we have the ideal base to work closely with NASA to help contribute to their understanding of space.

Apollo 17 astronauts Ronald E. Evans Command Module Pilot (front) and Harrison H. Schmitt, Lunar Module Pilot (behind) say goodbye to their wives as they leave to be strapped into the Apollo 17 capsule.
Image © William Pekala/NPS Nikon Inc.

In the early days, photo opportunities at these launches were very controlled; most of the photographers were restricted to just taking photos of the astronauts walking out from the dressing area before being strapped into the vehicle. Almost no one outside of NASA was allowed close up access.

At the Apollo 17 launch, for example, getting decent photo coverage was particularly difficult. The press site complex was more than 3 miles away from the astronauts and the shuttle, which meant you needed to get hold of the longest lens you could to stand a chance of getting a decent shot. The best images were from 600mm & 800mm lenses, and Nikon Professional Services was loaning out as many of these as possible, but it was first come first served.

What made things even more complicated was the fact that the photographers had to try and keep the long lenses out of the scorching hot Florida sun, to avoid them being affected by heat waves and bad air currents. Bearing these kinds of challenges in mind, it’s not surprising that photo coverage of the early launches left a lot to be desired.

STS-1, April 12, 1981 – the start of the Shuttle program from the press center with a 600mm lens – 13 sec after lift-off. Image © William Pekala/NPS Nikon Inc.

To try and overcome some of these issues, Nikon, in conjunction with TIME Magazine photographer Ralph Morris, The Orlando Sentinel, and several other large publications, petitioned the NASA Public Affairs office to allow some more knowledgeable photographers access to the area around the launch pad. This would allow for the placement of remote cameras to help capture the launch more fully and would involve permitting civilians, under NASA escort, to place cameras around the pad for close up views of the launches. TIME Magazine had done this in the later days of the Apollo Series with moderate success and great cost.

NASA agreed, with the stipulation that cameras had to be in place the day before the launch so that everyone was out of the area 24 hours prior to lift-off, and preparations started for “remote” coverage for STS-2 which was to launch in Nov of 1981.

Ourselves, The Orlando Sentinel and TIME Magazine each started working on remote triggers that would fire at the time of launch. Since there was nothing commercially available to do this, there were several approaches to the design. You could fire the cameras by sound, light, or vibration from the ground, but each method had its pitfalls. Sound could change depending on the direction of the wind. Using light meant concentrating a spotting lens on the flames from the shuttle, which proved difficult as the wind caused the smoke to obscure the view. Also using vibration required special sensors that were also difficult to obtain.

In the end, Nikon Professional Services put out remotes for STS-2 using all three of the designs. These remote triggers had to be handmade with parts off the shelf at a local Radio Shack (a US chain of electronics stores).

It took a lot of research and experimenting to build a remote trigger. Image © William Pekala/NPS Nikon Inc.

All the hard work and effort over the next four or five launches paid off. Remote triggers were becoming a dependable way to bring close up views of the launch to the public. By the mid-80’s there were even a few entrepreneurs that were offering pre-built remote triggers that could take the various inputs necessary to catch these exciting images. Additionally, clocks to keep the triggers from prematurely firing were incorporated into these commercial units. You can see the improvements these developments made to the launch coverage in the following photos.

STS-2 from a remote trigger near the pad – on its way to orbit. November 12, 1981.Image © William Pekala/NPS Nikon Inc.

STS-7 – June 18, 1983 – Space Shuttle Challenger on its way. This was Challenger’s second
flight, and the first shuttle launch with a female astronaut on board (Sally Ride). Image © William Pekala/NPS Nikon Inc.


STS-7 – with remote triggers becoming more dependable, it was common practice to put out several cameras in different locations to show several views of the launch. Image © William Pekala/NPS Nikon Inc.

Today, we’re proud to have eight D2X cameras, 36 NIKKOR lenses, one unmodified D3S and lots of other carefully crafted Nikon kit aboard their world famous, International Space Station. Recently the Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli boldly went where few of his predecessors have been before when he brought his Nikon D-SLRs on-board the International Space Station. Take a look at some of his staggering, earth shattering snaps from space with his two regular, unmodified D-SLRs – the Nikon D3S and the Nikon D2X.

The desert of Somalia. Image © Paolo Nespoli, ESA/NASA


The International Space Station casts a shadow over the Space Shuttle Discovery. Image © Paolo Nespoli, ESA/NASA

HTV relocations over the Caribbean
Image © Paolo Nespoli, ESA/NASA

As you can probably imagine, taking pictures in space is a little trickier than on earth, so our product development team at our Nippon Kagaku Ohi Plant in Japan, which designs our cameras that go into orbit, has to ensure the cameras are suitable for this alien environment.

A camera in space is subject to much stronger sun rays than those on Earth and it has to be operated using gloves and in a vacuum with zero-gravity. In order to meet these extreme conditions, the cover of the camera is changed, and interchangeable lenses and other electrical components are also modified.

Nikon Photomic FTN. Image ©Tateno, Yokoyuki

Published by mynikonlife Jul 31, 2011
Categories: Life, News