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NASA: 50 Years of Exploration

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NASA Photographers: 50 Years of Capturing the Moment

    By Edward S. Goldstein

    Priceless moment - NASA photographer Bill Ingalls (top) took this picture of President Bill Clinton showing John F. Kennedy, Jr., and his wife Carolyn Bessette the portrait of JFK (bottom) during a White House showing of Tom Hank’s HBO film series From Earth to the Moon (July 5, 1998). Photo credits-NASA/Bill Ingalls

    Priceless moment - NASA photographer Bill Ingalls (top) took this picture of President Bill Clinton showing John F. Kennedy, Jr., and his wife Carolyn Bessette the portrait of JFK during a White House showing of Tom Hank’s HBO film series From Earth to the Moon (July 5, 1998).
    Photo credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

    Since the dawn of the Space Age, NASA has produced some of the most iconic photographic images in history. NASA’s most epic “shot,” perhaps, is the one Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders took of the Earthrise over the lunar surface on Christmas Eve, 1968. This photo was featured on the cover of a special edition of Life magazine as one of the 100 most important photos of all time. Anders said of his photo, “Let me asssure you that, rather than a massive giant, [the Earth] should be thought of as [a] fragile Christmas-tree ball which we should handle with considerable care.”

    While NASA astronauts have ready-made opportunities to take photographs of unique value, NASA’s on-the-ground professional photographers also have contributed to a record of images that never cease to inspire awe and wonder. Some of their favorite pictures are featured in this section.

    Representative of the talented NASA photography staff is Bill Ingalls, an 18-year agency veteran, who serves as contract senior photographer and program manager at NASA’s Headquarters. In his post, Ingalls has roamed the nation’s Capitol and White House, and photographed launches from the swamps of Florida to the desolate desert of Kazakhstan.

    Ingalls recalled how he came to NASA in 1989 because he wanted to work at a place with “a very exciting subject matter” and soon found himself on the White House south lawn photographing the Apollo 11 astronauts and President George H.W. Bush during ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the moon landing. Ingalls’ most widely reproduced photograph resulted from another White House visit, this in 1998 on the occasion of a special showing of Tom Hank’s HBO film series, From the Earth to the Moon. During a break in the event Bill ventured his way into the White House main hall and found himself taking photos of guests John F. Kennedy, Jr., and his wife, Carolyn Bessette, joined by President Bill Clinton, admiring President Kennedy’s official portrait. Later, said Ingalls, “When John F. Kennedy, Jr., passed away in the plane crash I received a call from the White House saying, “We understand you have a picture that you took of him and his wife looking at the painting with the president.” Ingalls responded that he did, but “I’m certain that you must have a better picture that your guy took because he was also there.” Added Ingalls, “They said, ‘No, we can’t find anything.’ So I sent the picture over to the White House. Somehow The New York Times got wind of the picture and they picked it up and it started running all over the place. My understanding is the White House prepared a book for the Kennedy family of photographs and this was one of the lead images.”

    Rollout at dawn - Ingalls’ stark dawn portrait of the Soyuz rocket rolling out to its launch pad. Volcanic heat

    Rollout at dawn - Ingalls’ stark dawn portrait of the Soyuz rocket rolling out to its launch pad.

    One of Ingalls’ most memorable trips was to Kazakhstan in March, 1995 for the launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Soyuz spacecraft of astronaut Norm Thagard to the Mir space station. After many negotiations, Ingalls and his photographic teammate, Nikon’s Scott Andrews, were allowed to venture 100 yards from the pad a mere two hours prior to liftoff. “Our escort spoke broken English,” recalled Ingalls. “We still hadn’t set up our equipment. Finally the guy I’m with tells me to set my remotes up at the edge of the launch pad. And I said, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’ And he said, ‘Nyet. Bill, we’re here for launch.’ I then said I was concerned because my remotes were 10 feet in front of me and remotes are supposed to be remotes or I should be remote from the remotes. He said, ‘No, you’re here. If you should die, not to worry, we’ll bury you here full honors.’ He was joking. So the launch happened. As the Soyuz was leaving the pad there was a lot of debris in that area, stones just flying from the pad. I shot a bunch of frames with a handheld camera, but it was so cold the mirror on my camera froze up. So I shot blind for a while not being able to see what I was shooting, and then I hit the ground because there was so much debris flying around. Later I found one of the remotes 10 feet in front of me, a Hasselblad camera, had its side sheered off by a rock.” Ingalls also recalled fondly taking a photo of the Soyuz rocket rolling out in a cloud strewn landscape to the launch pad in the early morning light. Ingalls’ image captured the stark drama of the event by showing the “dark details” of the roll out. “I was really happy,” he said. “Sometimes the timing and light comes together at the right time.”

    Volcanic heat - Ingalls’ shot of the NASA-Carnegie Mellon University Dante II robot exploring Alaska’s Mt. Spur volcano. Photo credit-NASA/Bill Ingalls

    Volcanic heat - Ingalls’ shot of the NASA-Carnegie Mellon University Dante II robot exploring Alaska’s Mt. Spur volcano.
    Photo credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

    On another adventure, Ingalls was lifted down into Alaska’s Mount Spur volcano to photograph the NASA-Carnegie Mellon University Dante II Robot, designed to test concepts for planetary exploration. This time he was not attacked by flying rocks.

    Ingalls said that one of his favorite locations is standing behind astronaut and cosmonaut crews before they ride out to the launch pad in Kazakhstan, “when the crew’s behind the glass for the last time, getting their perspective looking back out.” Ingalls is quick to point out that he is fortunate to represent a wonderful group of NASA photographers around the agency whose current work is highlighted on these pages, plus such legendary space photography veterans as Andrew Patnesky (Johnson Space Center), Klaus Wilkens (Kennedy Space Center) and Bill Taub (headquarters) among many others.

    All of these photographers have conducted their work very much in the tradition of photographic icon Henri Cartier-Bresson who coined the phrase, “the decisive moment,” signifying when a picture taken through attention to detail, composition and circumstance, is able to capture on film the essence of a moment in time of lasting value.