From their orbiting home on the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts have a view unlike anything most of us will ever see. In the past 20 years, they have shot millions of photographs, and it is not just a hobby. It is an important scientific job, and one they need to be trained to do. So the astronauts and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing team work together before, during, and after every mission to get the most out of every shot.
Photography is challenging.
You have to know the proper settings and tools for your camera. You need to zoom and focus and adjust to the lighting.
Now imagine trying to shoot photos from space, in a micro-gravity environment, while looking out a window and flying faster than 17,000 miles an hour.
Photography can be challenging in any environment.
To be able to understand the optics, be able to understand aperture, and to be able to get the right combination of that to get the shot that you’re after. It’s particularly challenging in space because of the dynamics of it.
In the 20 years that astronauts have lived on the International Space Station, they have shot millions of photographs.
They record life inside the station. They take detailed views of equipment and experiments. And they capture views of Earth nearly every day.
Photography is not just a hobby for the ISS crew; it’s part of the job. And one they need to be trained to do.
The challenges of shooting photos from space are many. The Sun rises and sets every 90 minutes. Landmarks move from near to far in just seconds.
We’re orbiting the earth every 90 minutes going 17,500 miles an hour. If you are targeting a specific location on the Earth, you have to be in the window and ready for it when it passes underneath, it’s not going to wait for you.
The process of getting those shots starts years before an astronaut ever sets foot on the station.
At Johnson Space Center, astronauts are trained to be photographers. Their tools are no different than what we use on Earth: handheld digital cameras and video equipment.
In the classroom and in the field, they get basic photography lessons, skills classes, and lots of practice. Their teachers are professional photographers and videographers with a hundred years of experience between them. Even with all of that training, there is nothing quite like learning on the job.
You get used to every window position and they all have different orientations. There are usually handrails or some other structure around the window and you get pretty good at just grabbing them with your toes and anchoring yourself that way.
Their bodies are floating weightlessly, and so is the gear. The space station is orbiting. The Earth is turning. The Sun is reflecting off of Earth’s water, the station’s solar panels, and even the thick, multi-layer window panes.
But once the astronauts get oriented, once they learn to steady themselves and the camera. Well, then their perch may be the greatest any human photographer has sat in.
Everybody’s favorite window was added in 2010. It’s the cupola: I call it the window on the world. It’s the only place on the space station where you can see the entire globe.
We have photography equipment, cameras, and lenses staged throughout the station at the different window locations so that the equipment is readily available whenever we have a pass over something interesting and we have time to take some photography.
If the only purpose of shooting photos was relaxation or documenting life and work on the space station, then the astronauts would be all set. But looking at Earth is actually an important scientific job.
And so the women and men of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit train the astronauts in how to observe their terrestrial home.
We’re trying to get them into the mindset of being able to look at a landscape, recognize what’s out there, and more importantly, recognize what’s anomalous.
In these classes, the Earth observation team teaches the astronauts key concepts in remote sensing, geology, ecology, mapping, climatology, and weather.
They even go out for some field work.
We give them focused training on the kind of sites that we’re going to be asking them to photograph from the ISS. Because an astronaut who has some understanding of why they’re being asked to take pictures of these volcanoes or why we want them to take this picture of these glaciers leads to one, they get more invested, they become more interested in why they’re taking the images. But they also tend to take better imagery because they understand what it is we’re actually looking for.
Not all of us have a background that would give us an appreciation for the spectrum of different types of things that you can see on the Earth.
Part of the training is what do the scientists interested in Earth observation look for? What are their interests? What kinds of phenomenon, what geological structures for example, what kind of changes are they trying to capture over time?
Scientists, geographers, and students from around the world submit requests asking for views of Earth’s features and landscapes. Each day a few of those requests are passed to the space station crew.
The Earth-observing team maps what the space station will be flying over on each orbit of each day, whether it will be daytime or nighttime, cloudy or clear. They work with other space station teams to see when photography might fit into the work schedule. And they provide guidance to the astronauts on how to spot their targets on the ground.
It’s really difficult for us to provide an image that says: okay, this is exactly what it’s going to look like out the window because you may be reversed. You may be oriented 90 degrees. But we also try to include images that are other astronaut photographs. So we try to give them that kind of situational awareness as much as we can.
From their orbiting home on the space station, the astronauts have a view unlike anything most of us will ever see. It’s valuable because it is inspirational and because it is scientifically useful.
So the astronauts and the ground team work together before, during, and after every mission to get the most out of every shot.