A Photoshoot at the Edge of Space

A number of years ago, while still an ambassador for Hasselblad, I received a fateful phone call from a gentleman asking if he could pick my brain about the newly released Hasselblad X1D. I agreed, and we proceeded to talk about cameras, both past and present, along with the photos we had taken with them. It was a jovial conversation, but it wasn't until we were talking about the Hasselblad 500 that he said the line: "That is the camera I used to photograph the Mir Space Station."

A Real-Life Top Gun

This stopped the conversation in its tracks, as such a statement requires an immediate follow-up conversation in its own right. The man on the other end of the line was Joe Edwards, and he is not your ordinary photo enthusiast.

For those of us who grew up idolizing Top Gun, and then eventually Top Gun: Maverick, know that these movies are very similar to the life that Joe lives. Even more ironic is that the F-14 Tomcat that Tom Cruise flies in the first movie was a plane that Joe helped develop. Joe was a naval aviator and a graduate of TOPGUN (how the Navy spells it). Showing an extreme skill for flying, he became a test pilot when the military started to develop advanced versions of the Tomcat in the 1980s. One fateful day, near the end of Desert Storm, the nose of the F-14 detached from his airplane and broke through his canopy, causing severe injuries and temporarily blinding him in one eye. Even with the absolute chaos of the situation, Joe still managed to land the plane on an aircraft carrier, and the picture below is of that moment.

While the military treasures those who can perform complex tasks like landing a plane on an aircraft carrier under extreme duress, another organization also values individuals who can remain calm in intense situatio: NASA. In the years that followed, Joe's relationship with NASA grew, culminating in an invitation to fly a space shuttle. Joe's opportunity would come with the mission STS–89, and he would pilot the Space Shuttle Endeavor. His mission to rendezvous with the Mir Space Station was an overwhelming success, set several spaceflight records, and was, of course, a highlight of his very decorated career.

Back to the Photoshoot

Over the last several years, Joe and I discussed everything from cameras to airplanes to cars and watches. He was one of the few to know early on about the possibility of my photoshoot at the edge of space. However, at the time, we both knew how unlikely it was to happen, as it is very unusual for a civilian to do such a flight. When the Air Force circled back to me a couple years later, I was optimistic but cautiously so, as I wanted to avoid getting my hopes up for such an out-of-this-world experience (no pun left behind). However, Joe remained steadfast in his support and, on many occasions, was a cheerleader for me to stay optimistic about the mission.

When the day came that I learned that my flight had been green-lit from DC, Joe was one of the first people I told. We were both ecstatic about the opportunity and much for the same reason. We both wanted to see what the view and experience could look like in the eyes of a commercial photographer.

For a while, I remained confident and somewhat comfortable about the entire project. That all ended the moment I put on the spacesuit (and particularly, the helmet). With the visor closed for the first time, pure oxygen flowing, and the suit inflated, I found myself trapped inside a small, noisy, spherical echo chamber. Claustrophobia was not the problem. Inside the inflated suit, I had limited peripheral vision, little to no mobility, and seemingly even less dexterity. As I became more acquainted with the environment I was to perform within, personal doubts arose. Would it be possible to achieve such a lofty goal? However, when I talked to Joe about this, he always told me that I was the right person for this photoshoot and to keep my head up.

With the spacesuit fitted and the flight date set, I started a rigorous routine to be ready, not only for the flight but to execute a successful photoshoot. At the gym, I spent many days a week working on my shoulders to combat the resistance from the spacesuit when lifting my arms. I would also do cardio every other day on the bike so that I could lower my heart rate and respiration, for if it became elevated during the flight, the exhaled moisture in my breath would ice over the canopy at the extreme altitudes we were to fly. It was at this point that Joe's experience as an astronaut really came into play.

We began talking once or twice a week, and as much as our previous conversations were always tangent after tangent, they became more focused on the flight. We knew the hostile environment at the edge of space where I would be working, and that my most significant threat to the photos was actually my actions. Joe started talking to me about developing a workflow for the flight and the suit. While I had never been to such heights or seen the views that I would be seeing on the flight, I had a general idea thanks to his experience. With that, we planned out a shot list based on minimizing the movement I needed to create the images.

In the spacesuit, there is a large O-ring where your neck is so that your head can swivel. There are also two smaller O-rings at your wrists so that you can pivot your hands in order to operate things like cameras. Unfortunately, moving with these O-rings isn't as simple as it sounds, as one must make a pointed effort to look right or left. One of the ideas we came up with was only utilizing cameras with an articulating LCD. This way, I could set my head facing forward and only use my shoulders, biceps, and forearms to function the camera. Fortunately for us, other than Leica, the camera manufacturers we had been considering all had articulating LCDs. This means that while the choice of camera bodies and lenses would influence the image creation, using them with the suit wouldn't hinder my ability to capture the photos.

Once we knew how I would be holding the cameras, the next part of the workflow we discussed would be minimizing the movement between the images. While I would love to have gone up to the edge of space and shot in a run-and-gun manner, such movements would work against our final product. With a general list of the images I wished to create, we planned the order in which I could shoot them to minimize the stress between where I would be pivoting in the cockpit. This was the workflow that would lead to success.

The next thing that Joe had me do for practice was wearing a motorcycle helmet and ski gloves while operating the camera. As much as I would have loved to have had a spacesuit at home to practice with, they are rather expensive and don't often leave the squadron at which they are kept. So, I resorted to standing underneath a highway overpass in Flagstaff, Arizona, while it snowed all around, wearing a motorcycle helmet and ski gloves to dial in the muscle memory I would need to operate the cameras. Much to my surprise, during the flight, the spacesuit gloves actually afforded quite a bit of functionality, even when inflated. The motorcycle helmet was there as a reminder that I would not be lifting the cameras to my face and to reinforce the confinement I would be under during the flight.

When the day of the flight came, Joe was one of the last people that I sent a text message to before heading to the base. He wished me luck and reassured me that I would succeed. Now that I can look back at everything, I'm grateful Joe was right. And equally thankful that he was there for me throughout the entire process.

One of the odd side effects of going to such altitude was the memory loss I suffered the following days after landing. For many people, I sent text messages to tell them that the flight was a success and that I was back on Earth safely. However, Joe was one of the people that I actually called. Unfortunately, it's a conversation I will never be able to remember. Still, even with the absence of its registration in my mind, I know everything that was said.

Thank you, Joe.

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1 Comment

One of the best articles I have read on fstoppers!