There are a select few who truly dare to test our limits and explore the fringes of what we know at the risk of their own lives and astronaut Don Pettit is no exception. Not only is he one of the very few qualified for space travel, but while willingly spending months aways from family and friends aboard the ISS (International Space Station), he did a remarkable job capturing some of his experience to share with the world. I had the pleasure of speaking to Dr. Pettit about his photography, his experience and thoughts on exploration.
You have some amazing photography and you also write poetry. What sparked your interest in these mediums? I’ve been doing photography ever since I was in sixth grade: I had a browning camera that shot 120 film and did all the chemistry for developing and printing it myself so I have been taking pictures ever since I was a little kid. I just love photography and I take pictures wherever I go: it could be a mundane or exciting place and I am always taking pictures most of the time just for me but when you go to an extraordinary place, I feel compelled to share the experience with those that don’t have the opportunity to go. So that is part of the motivation on the pictures. With the poetry, again, I’ve been writing poetry ever since I was a little kid and most of it is pretty awful but it’s ok for me cause I’m the one that gets to read it. This is the first time that I’ve really shared my poetry with folks, and again, I was compelled to because it is another medium to help share the experience and I also think, “how could somebody fly in space and not write poetry?”
Regarding your photography, I read a bit on how you mentioned it’s rather difficult to shoot in space. Were these skills that you developed practicing in your youth, or do you feel that you had to learn like a whole new approach while in space? There are a set of skills that a photographer develops throughout your career where you are kind of one with the camera and the subject that you are going after. Taking pictures in space from a detailed timing point of view is no different from wildlife photography where you might have to set up in a blind for a week and a half to get a picture or a rare bird displaying its feathers for a mating dance or something. It’s no different from a skill level point of view and what is technically required, than figuring out how to set up in the cupola space station and keep all the reflections off of these seven windows from interfering with the shot that you want and figuring out, technically, what the best camera and lens and settings in order to get the pictures you want.
Do you have a particular ritual before you get into the zone regarding shooting? Yeah, what I do is I get in one zone, the creative zone, where it’s like, “I want to get a picture of this subject,” maybe its star trails. And then, “I want to show it like this, and this, and this.” So you have this vision in your mind about what you want to show. Then you get into the cupola, and then you got to switch your mind into technical zone. Where you have to say, “ok, do I see reflections? What are the shutter speeds I want to use? What are the f-stops, which lens is going to be the best? Which camera is going to be the best?” Cause we’ve got quite a few different kinds of cameras, some of them have been on orbit longer than others and the longer they are on orbit the more damaged the CCD sensors get from the cosmic rays. There may be one camera that works really well for high speed photography during daytime with a long focal length lens, and another camera body that’s better for longer exposures for nighttime and they may be both the same [type of] camera and you just have to know your camera equipment well enough to know that, “ok, for nighttime photography, for star trails, I may use this camera body, but for daytime pictures, for this, and this, and this, I’m going to use that camera body.”
If you’re kind of floating in a creative bubble, I find that I make a lot of technical mistakes, which ruin the picture, so I swap back and forth between a technical, logical, gotta make sure everything is following a check list kind of ritual, so that I have everything set technically to photo. Then you have to swap back to the creative zone where you say, “how’s the composition? Is this the subject I want?” And then maybe right in the middle of shooting one subject you get another creative idea, you say, “wow, I want to shift from doing star trails to photographing sprites,” which is this upward directed lightning. So all of a sudden you may start in on star trails and then right in the middle you’d say, “wow, there is an amazing thunderstorm down there, I’m going to set up for sprites,” so you quickly change to another subject.
Is there any particular subject matter that you’ve enjoyed photographing the most? Well particularly the nighttime Earth is one of my specialties and particularly because video cameras are not sensitive enough to record it. Only recently have we had cameras that have sufficient sensitivity and resolution to record somewhat close to what we see out the windows at night. It’s amazing and astronauts have been seeing these views for fifty years and have not been able to adequately convey them to the people of Earth that don’t get a chance to fly into space. So one of the things I wanted to do was capture the dynamics of what happens during orbital nighttime. One motivation is, “let me see if I can’t figure out how to share what goes on in orbital night with those that don’t get to go into space.” The pictures now are pretty spectacular and you put them into these movies where you make these time-lapsed sequences, and it does a pretty decent job of capturing what is going on, but still, just like watching a video of somebody laying on the beach and calling that your vacation, it’s not the same.
You’ve mentioned that you’re a scientist by profession and an explorer at heart. Do you feel that you have a particular, all-encompassing, philosophy regarding exploration? I think when you talk about exploration it is something that has to be tailored to the individual and fortunately human beings are all good about tailoring their own beliefs to exactly what fits themselves. When you just talk about exploration you can read historical accounts of people from Europe who thought it was absolutely ridiculous to get into a sailing boat and try to explore for a new world. In historical hindsight we almost find these kinds of criticisms of exploration whimsical or extremely short sighted but those oppositions, at that point in time for exploration, were written by people who firmly believed you know, “why go over the hill when we have things to do where we are?” And that’s a basic philosophy, I think, of “not to explore.” Then you have someone else that says, “why not go over the hill because it is there. Maybe we’ll find something better than what we have.” What I found is those two philosophies are at odds but they’re complementary and no amount of discussion will change a person from one philosophy to the other. In order to make our society work we need both kinds. In fact, we probably need more people who are situated in, “the here and now, lets make it work where we are located,” cause that’s why we have food to eat, and clothes to wear and things like that. Then you need a small part of your population that says, “what’s over that hill, let me go there to see what I might find.” If everyone where that way I think we’d run out of food. [laughs]
See more of Dr. Pettit’s photography in the gallery below:
During his time in space, Dr. Pettit blogged about his experience here.