On the line two weeks ago was a producer from the Today show, asking me if I could come over to the NBC studios in Washington to help them out on John Glenn's obituary
"What?" I asked incredulously, "Did he die?!"
"I'm sorry," the producer said, "I should have worded that better."
It turned out this was to be an "HFR obit," a piece that is "held for release" until the subject actually dies. Glenn himself was fine; the Today show simply was updating its obit files on prominent older people the kind of folks who would merit lengthy treatment on the morning and evening news programs when the inevitable happened.
Having written Glenn: The Astronaut Who Would Be President in 1983 when I was a political reporter for the New York Daily News, I had become used to being a biographer-talking head about him, especially when Glenn went back up into space several years ago at the tender age of 77.
Back then in 1998, when Glenn was preparing to take what many viewed as a well-earned extraterrestrial victory lap as a member of the space shuttle crew, I had been featured in a number of TV documentaries, talking about Glenn's childhood in New Concord, Ohio, his combat experience in World War 2 and Korea, and his halting entrance into politics after his 1962 space mission, when he became the first American to orbit the earth.
So this time, for the Today show, it was just more of the same only now I had to remember to speak about Glenn in the past tense.
What that experience also did was to bring me back to the hoopla over Glenn's second space trip and call to mind the huge leap that space photography has made in the comparatively short time not much more than 40 years that men (and now women) have been exploring the heavens.
John Glenn, in fact, is credited with having pioneered space photography and he did it with a camera that was not much more than a toy. As Glenn once told me, it was he, not NASA, who was anxious to bring back a photographic record of his epochal 1962 flight. This was to be, after all, the greatest adventure of his life, one that would dwarf all of his previous wartime and test pilot adventures. (Perhaps understandably in those early days, NASA, the space agency, was less interested in photography than it was in whether the men they shot into space actually would come back alive.)
No one, for example, really knew how an astronaut would be affected by prolonged weightlessness or the huge G-forces of liftoff and re-entry. "They not only gave me the anti-nausea tablets...but they put some of it in solution," Glenn told me. "They designed a special hypodermic needle that was springloaded and placed in my flightsuit in a little pouch. If I was getting so sick that I had to make an emergency re-entry, I could take the needle out, take off the safety catch, hit my leg and drive the needle through the suit..."
More disquieting, to me anyway, was Glenn's observation that "some of the doctors [also] thought that your eyes might change shape in weightlessness over a period of time." There was no cure for this if, heaven forbid, the change were permanent, but NASA wanted to know about it asap. Thus, on Glenn's capsule control panel was a miniature version of the Snellin eye chart. "If my eyes were to start to change shape and I started getting astigmatic and couldn't focus, or if I perceived any change in colors, I was to tell them..."
Happily, both Glenn's stomach and eyes were unaffected by his flight, and he was able to proceed and to take pictures.
Even in those early days, the Swedish-made Hasselblad was viewed as the go-to camera for high-definition photography in outer space. These 2 1/4 square space Hassys which ultimately went to the moon were custom retro-fitted to include huge roll-film magazines so the astronauts would never have to re-load. But Glenn also wanted something easier to use.
Rather than go through the federal bureaucracy or become tangled in other government red tape, Glenn simply went to his local camera shop and bought an "Ansco Automatic," the same kind of snapshot camera hundreds, if not thousands, of people used at the time. He gave the thing over to NASA engineers who dutifully jury-rigged it to have a kind of ugly pistol grip that would allow Glenn to operate the camera while wearing his bulky space gloves. Looking at the camera now, you would swear the whole business was held together with gaffer's tape and you'd probably be right.
As the space program progressed to more and longer orbital flights, and ultimately to lunar exploration and the shuttle missions, the Hassy became the most famous of the space cameras, and the Swedish camera-maker made certain everyone knew it. "The camera that went to the moon," its ads said at the time. [Think about it: virtually all those great, historic, images from the moon landing are square.]
Part of the reason for Hasselblad's longevity in space, besides the camera's storied ruggedness and durability, is the fact that the camera itself is comparatively simple and could lend itself to the same kind of jury-rigging for ease of use that was done on Glenn's piddly little Ansco. Of course, on later missions like the space shuttle, it no longer was necessary for crew members to remain in their cramped, bulky space suits so there was no real need to make the camera controls more accessible. In fact, on Glenn's second mission, in 1998, there were no modifications made to a Nikon F4, a Hasselblad and a Kodak digital DCS 460 beyond Velcro strips on the camera bodies that would help astronaut/photographers keep the cameras from floating through the cabin.
Today, NASA still uses film cameras, as well as state of the art digital gear, and has created a spectacular and public domain archive of simply astonishing photographs.
And it all began when John Glenn decided he wanted to have a few happy snaps of his first ride in space.
To browse the national treasure that is the NASA space photography archive, go to: http://earth.jsc.nasa.gov/sseop/efs/
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.