In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the character Dave Bowman draws pictures in his spare time. Perhaps bored with the unchanging view out the window, Dave turns his eye instead to his stasis-bound crewmates who wait silently for their arrival at Jupiter.
Silence, coupled with the somehow perfectly placed Strauss waltz, plays a major role in Kubrick’s film. It provides a space in which the psychological dynamic between Dave and the on-board computer, HAL, is allowed to take form. It provides a space in which Kubrick’s elegantly designed spaceship, port and space station can be—as their makers (a team of consulting NASA engineers) intended—simple, beautiful, dreamlike and utopian examples of technology that was soon to come.
In 1968, man had not yet landed on the moon.
In 1998, Andy Thomas spent 130 days orbiting Earth, living and working alongside two cosmonauts aboard the ageing Russian space station Mir.
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When astronaut John Glenn first went into space on 20 February 1962 aboard Friendship 7, scientists knew so little about the effects of low-gravity environments they were concerned that the shape of his eyeballs might change. Perhaps they should have been more concerned about how he was about to change the shape of the world.
The American space program unwittingly provided us with a great gift: the image of ourselves, our home planet, as seen from the unique vantage point of space. The technology of remote sensing, of the satellite eye, allowed us an objective and holistic view of Earth as surface. Now we could see that Earth was blue, cloudy and beautiful. We could watch the weather changing and forming, monitor deforestation and, of course, keep a quiet eye on our political enemies. But it was the journey of the astronaut exploring the new frontier of space, so often undertaken with personal camera in hand, that captured our collective imagination. In 1962 John Glenn became the first astronaut to release a shutter in space, forging our early perceptions of space travel: a tiny tin capsule and one heroic, isolated man with a fantastic view and a long way to go. The view that those early astronauts were so keen to capture on film is one now so familiar that we barely pay it any attention at all. Once it made the cover of Life and National Geographic; now it sells anything and everything from cars to hamburgers.
Glenn’s spacecraft was the first to be fitted with a full viewing window situated over the pilot’s head. This had not been included in previous designs for manned spacecraft quite simply because no-one had thought that astronauts would want to look out the window. There were also concerns that a window would distract them from the scientific objectives of their mission. However, from the astronauts’ point of view, a window was an essential and logical item. Equally as logical, to Glenn, was to take a camera along with him to get some pictures for everyone back at home. Like any tourist on the trip of a lifetime he wanted a personal record, a simple means of capturing the moment: proof, if you like, that he had in fact hurtled around our planet chasing sunsets.
The most experienced photographer of the original seven US astronauts was not Glenn, who completed three orbits of the Earth, but Gordon Cooper, who in May 1963 completed twenty-two. Upon returning to Earth, Cooper explained that the view out the window was ‘a tremendous distraction’ and that ‘you just want to glue your eyes to the window and watch every little detail’. To photograph the scene before his eyes was a compulsion, not merely a passing interest.
The enthusiasm of the original astronauts to capture the unique view from the window on film led to a number of technological innovations. Walter Schirra modified the standard Hasselblad for the rigours of space travel and his first disappointing exposures led to the adoption of a standard lens aperture and shutter setting (f. 11 at 1/250th). Cooper experimented with films, colour accuracy and low light-level exposures. He was also the first astronaut to make portraits of his crewmates, recording what went on inside the space capsule during his Gemini 5 mission of 1965, as well as the glorious scene without.
While the early astronauts of the pre-Apollo missions were applying so much enthusiasm to photography, NASA officials were wondering what to do about it. NASA had not foreseen the capacity for the view from space to beguile and captivate an astronaut. Curt memorandums were circulated confirming that ‘If an astronaut desires he may carry a camera with him,’ as if NASA could have prevented astronauts from sneaking cameras aboard or looking out the window. The Gemini Summary Conference papers of 1967 report that crew fatigue had not only resulted from the demanding mission requirements but also, and unexpectedly, from the fascination of the crew with the unique opportunity to view the universe.
NASA soon came to realise that the photographs made by astronauts had practical and scientific value. As missions progressed into the 1970s, it also became apparent that astronauts could see more with their own eyes from low Earth orbit than was ever expected—certainly more than was indicated by their photographs. During the Mercury 9 mission of 1963, Cooper reported seeing individual buildings on the Tibetan plateau, the wake of a boat on a large river, and even the smoke of a steam locomotive moving along its track. Conversely, astronaut James McDivitt, on Gemini 4 in 1965, had great difficulty recognising landmarks he had flown over countless times as a pilot and even momentarily misread a dark bluish triangle at the delta of the Nile River as an immense field of lava. It may have been these observations that encouraged NASA to investigate human vision as a complement to the photographic information that astronauts were so ready to supply.
Visual acuity tests were conducted during 1965’s Gemini 5 and Gemini 7 missions, with astronauts asked to locate 50- to 200-foot-long markers that had been laid out in patterns on the ground in Laredo, North America and Carnarvon, Australia. The successful observation of these targets proved that the human eye was indeed much more sensitive than the photographic technology of the time. It became apparent that the visual training of astronauts was of paramount importance; or, as NASA trainer Farouk El-Baz put it: ‘Man must be trained to be a good observer, and the task of looking must be planned before flight and conducted systematically. Otherwise, man will look but he may not ‘see.’ Something, of course, that artists have been aware of for centuries.
NASA went out of its way to enable astronauts to ‘see.’ The kits assembled for the Earth Observations and Photography Experiment of 1975 included observational aids such as a flight plan; an Earth Observations Book; a World Map Package; a ground scale; an enlarging telescope; and, most interestingly, a colour wheel that enabled the astronaut to match a numbered colour to what they saw in the oceans or land forms of the Earth below. Years earlier, Gordon Cooper and his crew mates had had a similar idea: ‘On Mercury, we had big debates about taking some coloured pencils—true artist’s pencils—along with us to try to duplicate precisely the colours of space.’ Not quite a numerically labelled colour wheel, but a standardised process of colour-selection and matching nonetheless.
Photography conducted aboard today’s Space Transportation System, or ‘space shuttle’, has a tightly focused, essentially scientific purpose. Each astronaut receives pre-flight training in how to secure images containing a high degree of qualitative scientific value. Crews are briefed on related disciplines such as geology, oceanography and meteorology and are made familiar with the photographic equipment that will be used on board. The shuttle itself comes equipped with no fewer than eleven viewing windows. Astronauts continue to conduct photography because they feel compelled to look: to capture and record the view. However, NASA has now ensured that astronaut photography is also the product of a highly trained, objective and formulated observation with scientific outcomes.
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On 19 May 1996, Australian-born NASA astronaut Dr Andy Thomas made his first journey out of the Earth’s atmosphere aboard the space shuttle Endeavor. The mission lasted ten days, the shuttle completing 160 orbits of the Earth. Leaving the Earth’s atmosphere Thomas carried with him many expectations of what things would look like from low Earth orbit. He had seen countless photographs from previous missions, heard other astronauts recount their visual experiences and been fully briefed on what to expect. However, nothing in his experience had prepared him for the first view of his home planet from the distance of orbit. ‘It blew me away,’ he told me, of the first time he looked out the window of the shuttle. ‘It blew me away.’1
You’ll find it in the words of astronauts everywhere: the profound, almost spiritual experience of encountering the greatest sense of perspective we are currently, physically capable of: seeing ourselves from above. Astronaut Marsha Ivins goes so far as to claim that there is nothing in our ‘genetic, metaphysical, emotional, psychological experience that prepares us for being off the planet. You know, you can look at all of the pictures that come back from space and you can look at the videos, and there is something about looking out the window that is not describable.’
No amount of training, charts or numbered colour wheels, it seems, can save the astronaut from the astonishing power of the ‘real thing.’ No photograph could adequately re-present the view from space, and yet, in order to regain some sense of equilibrium and objectivity, the astronauts reach for their cameras. The photograph, or so they and the majority of the camera-using population have been led to believe, will reproduce their experience of the hitherto unseen. Faithfully. It shall describe where words fail, it shall see truthfully when we feel overwhelmed and submerged in subjectivity.
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On 22 January 1998, Andy Thomas launched aboard the space shuttle Endeavor once more, this time to rendezvous with the space station Mir. It was a risky mission, Mir having encountered many problems both technical and accidental, including a potentially disastrous fire. But for Thomas it was an opportunity not to be missed. The pre-flight training was rigorous and included an extensive program at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City. His stay in space was to be a long one and his training was to ensure that he was both physically and mentally prepared to endure the confined and isolated conditions.
Today’s spacecraft are equipped with numerous viewing windows, their primary purpose being to provide a rapid and simple means of obtaining Earth observations. The secondary purpose (according to a 1998 International Astronautical Federation paper) of at least ‘one broad, earthward viewing window is to provide off-duty crew members with psychologically soothing opportunities for earth-viewing…including the collection of personally desirable imagery’. This is precisely how Thomas made use of the earthward viewing window aboard Mir, but in his case, he turned to both the camera and the pencil in order to collect his imagery.
I came to know of Thomas’s eleven pencil drawings when I gatecrashed my way into a function that was part of the 1998 International Astronautical Federation congress in Melbourne, not long after Thomas had returned from Mir. As a desperate student in search of vital information, I skipped a meeting at work, prepared a list of written questions and jumped on the train into town—the wrong train. As I sat waiting for the right train, I wondered if any astronauts had drawn pictures in space. I added that question to my list. When I finally arrived and summoned up the courage to introduce myself to Thomas, he was more than happy to talk with me at length. When I asked that last question—‘Do you know of any astronauts who have drawn pictures in space rather than, or as an addition to, taking photographs?’—he replied: ‘Yes. Me.’ That night I sang the praises of the public transport system. My discussions with Thomas about his visual experiences on Mir continued through written correspondence upon his return to the USA. He hopes to publish the drawings at some stage, but for now they remain a very personal record of his extraordinary journey and he is reluctant to share them.
For Thomas, the drawings have been able to accommodate what photographs could not. The photographs he made are like all other mission-derived NASA photography: after being examined scientifically they belong to the public domain and are most readily available on the NASA website. You won’t know that they’re Thomas’s—as he says himself, ‘anyone could have taken them’. The initial reasons for taking the photographs were aesthetic and mnemonic. As well as looking out the window, like John Glenn, for something beautiful or eye catching—colour, light, shape or unusual details—Thomas was also expecting that the photographs would eventually be a means of remembering, of returning to that moment in time. As mnemonic devices, however, the photographs fall short: they remind Thomas of the view without recalling the moment. They remain somewhat impersonal souvenirs, incapable of fulfilling their promise.
This is not the case, however, with the eleven drawings Thomas completed over his twenty weeks aboard Mir. The drawings were
a very important means of recreation and of escaping the confines of the spacecraft, at least in my mind. This, and the fact that some are of things I could not photograph, but could only imagine, makes them more personal. And as I look at them I can relive and recall some of the moments and sensations I felt when I was doing them and that makes them much more unique than any photo.
The drawings provide Thomas with a link to the time he can no longer hold onto, allowing him to ‘recall being in the cabin, floating and thinking about my life up there’. For Thomas it was drawing, not photography, that was capable of making an investigation of time and process, of maintaining narrative and context. With pencil and paper Thomas could invest the image, as an artist does, with the image of himself—of his reaction to the view. The photograph seeks a static frame of reference; the drawing let Thomas leave the confines of the cabin. Whereas the photograph insists upon a focal point, the drawing allows peripheral vision. Where the photograph is a captured, singular moment, the drawing is experienced, extended time. Andy Thomas found that his drawings were a better personal representation of his time on Mir because it was via the drawing that he was able to attend to what may be hidden, missing or absent from a photograph: the view from space as experience.
In a way, Thomas was fleshing out the essential schema of the photograph that he had come to know so well during his pre-flight training, revising his visual model. The art historian E.H. Gombrich would have referred to this as a process of ‘making and matching’ whereby an artist takes an initial schema and applies it to what they see, to what they make, whether that be a painting, drawing, photograph or sculpture, indeed, any form of visual expression. This is a process requiring ‘a constant readiness to learn, to make and match and remake till the portrayal ceases to be a secondhand formula and reflects the unique and unrepeatable experience the artist wishes to seize and hold.’2 Thomas’s drawings are recognition of a discrepancy in visual information, between the photographic image and the real thing. His drawings are a reassessment of a schema that he and so many other astronauts subconsciously recognise as inadequate.
However, as Gombrich points out, the process of ‘making and matching’ must start somewhere, even if it is with an inadequate original schema. Thomas found that because the scene from orbit changes very quickly it was ‘necessary to capture it on video and then freeze frame the view to do the sketch from. Unfortunately this meant that I lost some of the details.’ Although Thomas is here referring to a loss of detail due to the unavoidable breakup and degradation of the image as the video frame is held (an attribute of the ‘pause’ mechanism as exhibited by every household VCR), not to mention the already poor resolution quality of video, he could well be referring more fundamentally to his methods of observation, in which he found it necessary to have recourse to an inadequate, albeit familiar, schema. Not only did he inadvertently lose considerable detail due to the mediations of a limited technology, but also by resorting to his already photographically acquired schema, he limited the scope of his drawings. The experience of the real, full size, three dimensional, luminescent Earth, rotating silently in real time cannot be realised within the confines of the photographic visual model. If Thomas had been able to leave behind the schematic crutch of the freeze frame and had instead taken on the challenge of capturing the dynamics of the scene out the window, his rudimentary schema may well have acquired an entirely new dimension.
Indeed, as Thomas’s time on Mir progressed he did attempt to break out of the confines of his limiting original schema: ‘I started to do a few views of things that I could not see but which I could imagine (e.g. an outside view of the space station from some distance away).’ But even here, in an effort to make and match, Thomas could only rely on a previously developed language, selecting the nearest equivalence to what he saw in his mind. Even to draw from the imagination, the artist must refer to schemata based on previous visual experience, no matter how basic. In this case the nearest equivalence was the highly edited photographic/video image.
For those of us back at home this nearest equivalence is our first, our original, our founding perception of the view from space: a perception which we continue to build upon, image by image. We float in ‘zero-g’ to a Strauss waltz in 2001, cruise through galaxies in Star Trek, use the Force in Star Wars, try our hand at being an astronaut in The Right Stuff and overcome a NASA disaster with Tom Hanks in Apollo 13. Like Thomas, we can take this founding perception, limited as it may be, and build upon it in our imagination.
It must be recognised that Thomas has made a giant leap from Glenn’s ‘happy snaps’ of 1962. Rather than merely deciding that seeing this is worth recording—as Glenn did all those years ago from inside his little tin can—Thomas had decided that seeing this is worth investigating. Although his original schema or model was born of a photographic vision, the apparent mismatch of schema and experience has led him to move on from a form of perception that enlists devices such as the numerically labelled colour wheel, and to reintroduce an element of the subjective and the imaginative—to open up the restrictive and selective frame and to see much more than was expected. In this case, the astronaut who has been taught how to look is now learning how to see.
Colleen Boyle is an artist and academic working out of Melbourne, Australia.
Image credit: Matthew J. Cotter