Monday, April 25, 2011

Of space and film...memories of a trip to NASA

I was watching a NASA documentary this week and it reminded me of a very fun time 15 years ago when Corbis had the opportunity to access to the original film from the space program up to that time.  The collection, which included film that was taken on the moon, had ever been digitized.  Much of it is very fragile, and to that point any publication was done via color dupes. In fact, due to weight restrictions on the Apollo flights, film was manufactured without any base coating.  This can give you an idea of how conscious NASA was about every single ounce of payload and it left them with film rolls that are more like cellophane than cellulose.

NASA photos are by definition public domain--we as a people own them.  So the deal we made with NASA was that we would use our expertise in scanning, color correction, and archiving as a service and Corbis would be allowed to include the images in our digital collection.  In return we would provide NASA with full-resolution imagery of everything we captured.  Those images are available today at the NASA GRIN site, including the high-res versions.

One of the first steps taken on the Moon, this is an image of Buzz Aldrin's bootprint from the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon on July 20, 1969.  AS11-40-5877

At that time, most all film scanning was done on a drum or flatbed scanner.  In this case neither would work as the 70mm film from the Hasselblad backs was in long rolls and couldn't be cut, and maintaining the integrity of the archive was of utmost importance. 

A reel of 70mm original flight film from the first five Apollo missions, Apollo 8 through 13, is prepared for scanning at the Corbis scanning laboratory at the NASA Space Center in Houston, Texas. © Roger Resssmeyer/Corbis

Working with world-renowned space and science photographer, Corbis colleague Roger Ressmeyer, Charlie Sliwoski, Corbis Imaging Lab manager at our Seattle headquarters, and the NASA photo team,  a roll-to-roll process using the  Leica DSW200 was developed to handle the job.  Astronaut Jay Apt worked with Roger and Charlie to tweak the color from these frames that had already begun to shift in some cases.  The result was public access to images that had not seen the light of day for nearly 30 years, first viewed in the book Orbit.

Non-NASA employees were not authorized to handle the film directly, and given the sensitive nature of these priceless assets, we built a close bond with the Johnson Space Center team.  The project was considered secret, and in one of the funniest stories from the trip there was a rumor that "Bill Gates' company was funding a project to look for extraterrestrials in the NASA film archives".  And this was from NASA employees.

During the time I was in Houston, The Columbia Space Shuttle mission STS-75 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  It was really a privilege to be at Mission Control during the launch and for a few days during the mission.  Surely the days of capturing imagery on film is past and worrying about the weight of anything photographic besides the capture device is a memory but we all do owe a debt of gratitude to the folks that manned the photo lab in Houston and protected a great piece of our history for generations to come.

Want to see more NASA shots?  Take a look at this book in the Blurb Bookstore.

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