We talked to Jennifer Levasseur, a museum curator in the Department of Space History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC and the author of Through Astronaut Eyes: Photographing Early Human Spaceflight.
Through Astronaut Eyes explores the origins and impact of astronaut still photography from 1962 to 1972, the period when human spaceflight first captured the imagination of people around the world. Featuring over seventy images from the heroic age of space exploration, the book presents the story of how human daring along with technological ingenuity allowed people to see the Earth and stars as they never had before.
Q: How did this project start?
Jennifer Levasseur: As a graduate student intern at the National Portrait Gallery, I cataloged photographic portraits of notable figures, learning how to describe them in words for digital records. A few years later, I took over responsibility for the human spaceflight camera collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. That meant caring for material culture from human spaceflight, and it overlapped with thinking about the visual products and interpreting the messages in images. My questions began to include how astronauts, our representatives in space exploration, also had to capture what they saw to tell us stories. The cameras tell a technological story, but the images tell sublime stories also defined by the people who took them – people who defined themselves as pilots, engineers, or scientists, but not photographers. The reality of spaceflight complicated a narrative of exploration photography seen for almost a century prior to the 1960s, so that brought more intensity to how we remember that time, even if we weren’t alive.
Q: Is there any single photograph, or even a couple, that you think encapsulate the unique and interesting subject that is astronaut photography?
Levasseur: Some images captured by astronauts hold special meaning because they’ve permeated our culture so deeply, they’re now almost part of our everyday lives. Most books still use the image of the whole Earth from Apollo 17 as the image of our planet even though it’s almost 50 years old. Or how we still think of the Buzz Aldrin image “Moonman” as the quintessential astronaut image. Those serve as the iconic, but I always love looking through those that seem mundane and yet reveal something new upon each viewing. Like a favorite movie you’ve seen hundreds of time, it’s awesome to look for something you haven’t caught before. I think Earth-facing photography can be that since our planet is incredibly diverse. But for the era my book examines, everything leading up to the end of the Apollo program, the image Michael Collins took looking towards Earth with the lunar module in the foreground is just beyond words in its sublimity. Sometimes called the “loneliest man” image because Collins is the only human in all of history to that point not captured in the photograph, the perspective is unique and almost unimaginable. That one really captures the story of the missions, the people, and our planet all in one frame.
Q: Given the stakes of traveling in space, what do you think is the best defense for time spent on astronaut photography, something that may not seem pertinent to mission success?
Levasseur: Astronauts opinions overall hovered at lukewarm on adding photography to their mission duties, with some very supportive and invested in the final products, and others preferring to mostly ignore it or find other tasks where they could specialize. But few of them could deny the privileged position it put them in, to see something just over 500 humans have ever seen even today. From that position, they can all contribute to seeing space to understand it better, and photographs are critical to that narrative. Astronauts tell stories in interviews, and have for decades after their missions, but that same message can be conveyed with a simple image. It brings the story to life, and inspires, and prompting new generations with that inspiration was a key factor in NASA’s mission, really their directive from Congress, to share with everyone what was learned through their work. NASA had that cultural/educational component from day one, so things like artwork, films, photographs, and eventually displays in museums were critical to fulfilling that part of their mission.
Q: Are there astronauts that are historically considered good or bad “space photographers”?
Levasseur: Two astronauts were significant contributors to showing the intent of the person behind the lens. Alan Bean was an artist and conceived of his photographs more like a professional photographer than any other astronaut of his generation. His photographs of Pete Conrad next to Surveyor 3 on the Moon with the lunar module in the background are particularly sublime. Much later, on the last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009, John Grunsfeld took a photo of his reflection in Hubble that serves as a book-end of the images of Bean, showing a path from very classic landscape photography, thoughtful and considered, to something almost abstract and modern art-like. Astronauts really evolved as thoughtful participants in photography from the day of just pointing and shooting out the window.
Q: Why you think astronaut photography is so important for the public’s feelings towards space travel?
Levasseur: We can see space and our world and our universe through many eyes: described by astronauts from memories of what they saw, in photographs they took with cameras, and through telescopes directed at things we cannot see with our own eyes. The visible world around us, as seen through photographs, offers a sense of our place in it. When the languages of math or science are too complicated for some of us, the visual language of images simplifies that information and makes it possible for almost anyone to grasp. Knowing a person was on the other side of a camera lens, we connect to that event through that person. Their story is intertwined with what is seen in the images. The astronauts are part of the portal through which we see and understand the image content, and they can’t and shouldn’t be removed from the stories we tell about those images. In a time when the isolating experiences of being an astronaut seem more understandable than ever to the rest of us, the photographs they’ve captured prompt new thinking about their value to understanding the big picture of human life on Earth.
Thank you so much to Jennifer for her time! If you would like to know more about the book you can get your own copy or request it from your local library.
You can get 40% off Through Astronaut Eyes and any other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE40 at checkout.