On April 11, Smithsonian Associates will present a seminar at the Hirshhorn Museum as part of the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Telescope featuring four individuals who played key roles in Service Mission SM4: Astronaut Scott Altman, the STS-125 shuttle commander; David Leckrone, Hubble Senior Project Scientist, EVA spacewalk flight controller and astronaut instructor Christy Hansen, and Hubble systems Engineer Ed Rezac. They will be joined by photographer Michael Solouri, the only photographer from outside of NASA to have documented the behind-the-scenes moments leading up to the astronaut’s final mission to service the Hubble Telescope in May 2009.
In February 2015, Soluri released his book “Infinite Worlds,” which “through photographs and first person stories from those that worked that mission reveals the art, craft and evidence of human spaceflight on Earth and in space ….” accompanied by a foreword by former astronaut John Glenn.
For three years, Soluri had exclusive access as the sole photographer to the astronaut crew, labor force and tools of the shuttle mission that saved and extended the life of the Hubble Space Telescope. In exchange for the astronauts’ time, Soluri was asked to hold photo seminars that essentially taught astronauts how to take better photographs in space — how to become better aware of light, of their working environment in and out of their cabins in space, and how to look for space.
In Sight recently spoke to Soluri about how “Infinite Worlds” came to be, and the experience of documenting what he calls a journey centered on American innovation.
In Sight: You shot what would become “Infinite Worlds” over the course of three years. How did the project initially come about?
Soluri: This project began by me doing some work for Discover magazine in the fall of 2006. Corey Powell was executive editor at the time. He’s a great writer and studied the History of Science at Harvard. He knows how to translate the complexity of science into a language that every man can understand. He liked the idea of the book, and said, “You have a chance to do something really unique and one-of-a-kind.” I went to the publisher and proposed focusing on the crew, the people. I said, “Without the crew we’re not going to get anywhere.” So they paid for me to go to Houston to meet with the Hubble crew. I believe there was an elegance to what they were doing, and I wanted to humanize this experience.
In Sight: The foreword to “Infinite Worlds” is written by legendary astronaut John Glenn. How did that collaboration happen?
Soluri: Dr. Lance Bush is the CEO of the Challenger Foundation, and he told Glenn about the book. Glen was on his board, and Bush opened the door for the collaboration. I spoke with Glenn through his assistants. We went back and forth through e-mail a lot about the overall project and that is essentially how the foreword was written. I felt a story like this has to begin with the person who first made it happen.
In Sight: Given the astronauts’ training sessions, how often would you meet with them?
Soluri: I met with the astronauts on three separate occasions over the course of three years. A month before the final flight, I met with all the astronauts as opposed to photographing a few of them each time. It became this sort of word-of-mouth. Some of the astronauts who I had photographed and would become close with would pass on to the others their experience of working with me. I had a lot of collaboration. This was like making a movie. And over time, I think the crew and the Hubble management came to trust me because I never took things for granted. I always asked permission to have access to a person, a room, the tools, etc. That was important to me.
In Sight: Was there ever a moment during this whole process when you stepped back and reflected on the magnitude of what you were documenting?
Soluri: Oh yes. It amazed me that all of this was made in the United States. I’m realizing that these astronauts and crew members really care about what they’re doing. They care about their precision the same way I care about mine as a photographer. There is that sense of duty and dedication. Science is happening on its own through engineering. I think sometimes the country forgets that. I’m from upstate New York, and I would go to these small towns and fireman’s festivals sometimes and look for that sense of what is America. In the images of these people and astronauts who worked on the Hubble telescope project, that’s a piece of Americana within their world. This is their work world, and this is the culture of American space flight. This book represents what was and what would be. The telescope cannot be repaired mechanically. The Hubble works, but the human touch is what was needed.