Did you know that before Hasselblad became the official camera of the moon, space exploration was photographed with modified versions of simple drugstore cameras?
Everything the first humans venturing into outer space did was deemed an experiment. Including simple functions like breathing or sleeping, nobody was exactly sure how humans would react to the hostile environment of space. It’s no surprise then that traditional photography wasn’t really a part of the mission plan. In the minds of the earliest pioneers, who had time to just look around and snap some keepsakes? Neither Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, nor “Gus” Grissom brought cameras into space. The astronauts themselves were filmed while in orbit in order to monitor their behavior, but there wasn’t any thought given to aiming cameras out their windows towards the heavens.
Early Vostok Flights
Without a camera, Gagarin was forced to describe what he saw,
... the visibility is excellent [...] I discern the folds of the terrain, the forest [...] I observe clouds above the earth, small, cumulus. And the shadows of them. Beautiful, beautiful.
Understanding the value of images over words, the Soviets sent their next cosmonaut, Gherman Stepanovich Titov, into space with a Konvas-Avtomat modified to accept 300 meters of film.
After his return to Earth, color photographs of the Earth from space were printed from the film. During launch, g-force broke the exposure dial on his camera. Thankfully for all of us, Titov had practiced diligently with his camera and he was able to guess the exposure.
Early Mercury Flights
John Glenn’s Mercury mission briefing included taking ultraviolet spectrographic photos of the constellation Orion with a modified Leica.
Shortly before the launch date, Glenn picked up a Minolta Hi-Matic (licensed to Ansco as the Autoset) at a local drugstore. Glenn, working with NASA engineers, modified the Minolta to make it easier to use in a spacesuit.
You can see that the camera was flipped upside down, a pistol grip was installed, bulky shutter and advance knobs were attached, and an eyepiece was fixed onto the camera so that Glenn could use the camera with his helmet and gloves on.
Although Glenn’s photos aren’t as sharp or crisp as the photos that would come from later Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, they helped to keep the public onboard with the expensive space program / space race.
Realizing how Glenn’s images captured the publics attention, NASA endeavored from that point forward to make traditional photography part of the mission plan. This meant that cheap drugstore cameras weren’t going to be capable enough.
It was on a subsequent Mercury mission that astronaut Wally Schirra, a shutterbug, picked up a Hassleblad to be modified for his flight. You can read about the modifications here.
I find it amusing how Shirra’s personal faith in Hasselblad started a long-time relationship between NASA and the ubiquitous camera company.
Images from NASA and Roscosmos are in the public domain.