Inside Nasa’s Unseen Archives
As a space-mad boy in suburban England, Benedict Redgrove watched grainy television pictures of the space shuttle Columbia as it soared into Earth’s orbit from Cape Canaveral for the first time, “heart beating, head swimming, and full of nervous excitement”.
Decades later, the photographer found himself at the same launchpad, watching it being prepared for a mission to Mars. “I was at the very spot that had sparked my love of space,” he says. “I looked back at the Vehicle Assembly Building where the space shuttle and Apollo missions were prepared for take-off and realised, I was looking at the past, present and future of Nasa.”
Redgrove has spent nine years photographing items from the space agency’s rich history in loving detail. It took him five years just to arrange access, and to persuade Nasa to open up archives that had been left untouched since the original missions. “Some items were so fragile I was nervous just putting the lights near them,” he says. Others, like some of the gloves and helmets, were in cabinets that hadn’t been opened in five years and had to be broken into.
Now the photographer will publish more than 200 photos in a new book, Nasa – Past and Present Dreams of the Future, which will launch on Kickstarter on July 20 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of a humans setting foot on the Moon for the first time. One special edition of the book will come in a bag made from the fabric used on the original Apollo spacesuits, sewn together by the same seamstress.
“These objects are greater than the sum of their parts, filled with energy and history,” Redgrove says. ”I wanted to photograph them in detail, isolated from their surroundings to show them as I see them — to portray them as I feel about them. Icons of our time.”
Modified Boeing 747
Although the space shuttles could land horizontally like a passenger aircraft, they could only take off vertically. To ferry the shuttles around down on Earth, Nasa modified a couple of Boeing 747 jumbo jets to provide an aerial piggyback. This one, Nasa 905, was inherited from American Airlines, and was heavily modified to support its precious new cargo. “This shot was taken early in the morning from a cherry picker on a freezing cold, wet windy Houston day at Independence Plaza at Space Centre Houston,” says Redgrove.
Lunar Landing Training Vehicle
The final phase of every moon mission required a nail-biting manual landing on the lunar surface. To practice, satellite-bound astronauts trained extensively on the one of three Lunar Landing Training Vehicles, which used a huge turbofan engine to simulate reduced gravity.
Fifty years ago, when Neil Armstrong piloted the Eagle lunar landing module onto the surface of the Moon, he drew confidence from approximately 60 practice landings he’d made in the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle. “The final trajectory I flew to the landing was very much like those flown in practice,” said Armstrong, who had been forced to eject from the LLTV’s predecessor before a fiery explosion. “It was a contrary machine, and a risky machine, but a very useful one.”
Space Shuttle helmet
Before the Challenger disaster in 1986, astronauts on the Space Shuttle did not wear full pressurised space suits while launching or returning to Earth. Instead, they donned simple blue flight suits. They also wore these separate motorbike-style helmets, which used carbon fibre where earlier models had been made of fibreglass. They connected to an emergency oxygen supply via a hose.
Test lunar module
Before the Apollo 11 mission that took men to the Moon, Nasa built a number of test versions of the lunar module to prove that it could safely ferry the astronauts back and forth from the lunar surface. This iteration, Lunar Test Article 8, was used mainly to test the module’s oxygen and temperature controls, and by astronauts to practice making a speedy emergency exit. Its twin still rests in the Sea of Tranquillity.
Spacesuit name stamp
Normally, name badges would be sewn into flight suits, but needles and pressurised space suits are not a happy combination. Instead, stamps like these were used to stamp gloves, suits and other items for each astronaut. “The rubber stamps were in a cabinet that hadn’t been opened in five years and they had to break in,” says Redgrove.
Spacewalk training suit
On June 3, 1965, astronaut Ed White became the first American to complete a spacewalk, as part of the Gemini programme. The suit – a training version of which is pictured here – connected to the spacecraft via a hose to supply astronauts with oxygen. White used a hand-held container of pressurised oxygen known as a ‘zip gun’ to manoeuvre.
Advanced Crew Escape Suit
The Advanced Crew Escape Suit was worn by astronauts on take-off and landing from the mid-1990s onwards. It is brightly-coloured in ‘international orange’ to aid with search and rescue, and can be pressurised in an emergency. Underneath, the astronauts wear thermal underwear with plastic tubing to keep them cool, and maximum absorbency garments for catching bodily fluids in case that emergency comes to pass.
The classic two-piece space suit design has been in use since the early 1980s. It has a hard-upper shell, combined with a soft lower torso assembly that locks together. Because the suits are so stiff and bulky, the controls on the front of the suit have their text written backwards, so that the astronauts can see them in a mirror attached to their sleeves.
For the next generation of spacesuits, Nasa is incorporating new technologies that will support longer trips beyond Earth’s orbit. The Z2 advanced prototype uses advanced composites to reduce the weight of the suit and is designed with long excursions on the surface of Mars in mind.
When fully kitted out, astronauts are a walking television crew, with lights and video cameras attached to the sides of their helmets. A Vent Pad directs oxygen from the life support system to the front of the helmet, which maintains the right pressure in a clear plastic bubble around the head. The gold visor on top filters out harmful rays from the sun.
Astronauts have different types of gloves for activities inside and outside the spacecraft. The inside gloves – like the one pictured here, which was worn by Alan Bean during the Apollo programme – are made from a cast of each astronaut’s hand.
For Mercury, America’s first manned spaceflight programme, astronauts such as John Glenn wore these nylon gloves over their moulded rubber inner ones. The gloves attached to the rest of the suit with a ball-bearing lock mechanism, and had neoprene-impregnated palms to improve grip.
During the Gemini programme, astronauts began to conduct extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) for the first time, and needed gloves that provided more protection while also maintaining some manual dexterity. These gloves were still made of nylon, but fastened with a buckle. Some versions had a small light in the index finger.
Worn by Gene Cernan during training for Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the Moon, these gloves were designed for use on the lunar surface. The outer shell is made of Chromel-R fabric to allow handling of extremely hot or cold objects, while the blue silicone rubber fingertips provide sensitivity.
Gemini V capsule
In 1965, the crew of Gemini V, Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad, spent eight days crammed into this 6m-long capsule as it circled the Earth 120 times. It smashed the Soviet record for human spaceflight, providing useful knowledge about the effects of long-term weightlessness, and paved the way for future successes.