When a fellow attendee at a photography conference asks Paul Reichert what he does, he simply replies he works for NASA.
Many people find that impressive enough. But those who ask exactly what his job entails are even more impressed.
"Most people are pretty enthused that they got to meet somebody that teaches astronauts," Reichert said.
Reichert is part of a team that is responsible for training shuttle astronauts to operate the still cameras and video equipment they will use during their missions. "I'm enjoying my job a lot right now," he said. "I get to do something so unique, and I get to work with astronauts. That's cool! I never thought I would get the opportunity to work for NASA."
Reichert and David Williams are two of NASA's photo/TV trainers. Their duties for space shuttle missions include more than just training the crew. They decide which camera hardware will be used on the flights. They also provide ground support for the crew during the mission.
Photography and video work have always been a vital task of shuttle missions. The pictures astronauts take play an important role in sharing with the public the wonder of spaceflight. The images also document for the mission controllers what is going on in orbit. Video allows ground controllers to see what is going on aboard the spacecraft. Education downlink events let students see and talk to the astronauts in space.
During the STS-118 mission, for example, mission specialist Barbara Morgan and some of her crewmates used video downlinks for educational events. "With some of Barbara's stuff, we did more video production work," Williams said. "They had their own little recording studio on the flight deck."
Photography is also a popular astronaut hobby -- many crew members enjoy taking pictures of Earth from orbit.
Recently, photography and video have become even more important to the space shuttle program. During the preparations for the shuttle’s Return to Flight, NASA decided it needed to be able to know more about the condition of the vehicle while it's in space. After launch, the shuttle's external fuel tank is photographed to look for areas that may have shed foam during launch. After reaching orbit, a camera attached to the shuttle's robotic arm is used to inspect the orbiter for damage. This inspection can be repeated multiple times while in orbit to see if any damage has occurred during the mission.
The Return to Flight changes boosted the role of the photo/TV team within the shuttle program, as its work was assigned the highest level of importance -- projects vital to the safety of the vehicle and crew.
Improvements in technology have brought about other changes for the photo/TV team as well. The STS-117 mission was the first not to include any film cameras, completing a gradual transition to digital photography. This change involved a large amount of work for the team. While the cameras used on shuttle missions begin as standard commercial products available in stores, they undergo an evaluation process before they are qualified for spaceflight.
The evaluation process is even more complex for cameras that will be used during spacewalks. Those cameras must be modified for use in a vacuum and for exposure to greater radiation without problem. They have to be insulated against the extreme heat and cold encountered in space. And, of course, astronauts have to be able to use the cameras while wearing bulky spacesuit gloves. "They have very little control over the settings once they're out there," Reichert explained. "They basically just take the pictures."
The photo/TV team is responsible for choosing cameras for potential spaceflight use, evaluating those cameras and then figuring out how to modify them.
Even once that's done, the team members still have work to do before the cameras can be flown. They have to study how the cameras work, and prepare new lesson plans to teach astronauts how to use the new equipment. Since digital camera technology is improving so rapidly, this process is an ongoing cycle for the team. "Our group is never stagnant," Reichert said.
The switch to digital photography has had major benefits for spaceflight. Digital photography obviously eliminates the need to carry film in the precious cargo space of the shuttle, as well as ending the limitation on the number of pictures that can be taken on film. For example, during his six months on the space station, astronaut Jeff Williams, whom Reichert described as a "photo nut," took about 100,000 pictures. Perhaps most importantly, the digital transition means that people on the ground can see pictures the crew takes while they are still in space.
Photography training offered to the astronauts by the photo/TV team ranges from the simple to the complex. Crew members with little camera experience can learn the basics of photography. All crew members are familiarized with the operation of the specific equipment they will use on their mission and the little tricks the astronauts will need to know. Anyone who has ever photographed a stationary object while he or she is moving, or vice versa, knows to be careful to avoid blurring the picture. The shuttle orbits Earth at about 17,500 miles per hour. At that speed, it takes a quick and stable hand to pan the lens to take pictures of the ground without them being blurred.
Reichert became involved with NASA while in college, as a two-time co-op student at Langley Research Center in the Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars program. After completing his college major program in the engineering of photography, he began working in the Photo/TV group at Johnson Space Center.
Williams, on the other hand, did not initially work with photography when he came to NASA. He earned his bachelor's degree in industrial engineering, and began working for NASA in that field. Then, while working in a database management group, he became involved with teaching people to use the database system. "I realized I enjoyed being an instructor, simplifying a difficult task so that someone else could do it." His sister is a photographer, and from her he developed an interest in photography as a hobby. When a position in the photo/TV team became available, he saw it as a great opportunity to combine his interests in training and photography. Like Reichert, Williams said he loves what he's doing: "Right now, I’ve yet to see a better job at JSC than this one."
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David Hitt/ NASA Educational Technology Services