Astronaut Terry Virts waited 10 years to go to space. The former Air Force pilot joined NASA in 2000, the year that the International Space Station (ISS) welcomed its first long-term residents, but a series of unfortunate events—a surplus of new hires in the late 1990s; the fatal Columbia descent in 2003—caused a backlog of rookie astronauts who were delayed in leaving Earth’s atmosphere.

On February 8, 2010, Virts finally piloted the Endeavour shuttle into Earth’s low orbit, heading for the ISS to deliver two new modules for astronauts to live and work in. One was the Cupola, a domed observatory that offers 360-degree views around the station. While it was only a 13-day mission, Virts would get to know the Cupola intimately as the best place to take photographs of Earth, which he continued to do during his next journey, a 200-day expedition.

During his time on the ISS, Virts obsessively captured the colors and textures of Earth. Upon seeing the intense blue of the planet from space for the first time, he felt as though he “had been raised in a black-and-white world” and “was seeing color for the first time,” as he wrote in his book View From Above (2017). Virts set the record for the number of images taken by a single astronaut in space—319,275—and continues to share them on his Instagram

But Virts is just one of the many astronauts and researchers who take pictures from beyond our planet. NASA’s scientists—as well as their international and private-sector counterparts—remain our gatekeepers to the universe; they capture the only views of space that most of us will ever see. And though they may not be considered professional photographers in the modern sense, they are following in a much older tradition: the explorer, setting out into the unknown, armed with a camera. 

When pioneering Apollo astronauts first photographed the moon from its orbit in 1968, they brought bulky Hasselblad cameras and Kodak film magazines—a far cry from the digital technology that Virts had access to aboard the ISS. Even more unthinkable now are the images from 1965’s unmanned Mariner 4 spacecraft, which took four days to send back 22 grainy monotone pictures of Mars.

Today, NASA keeps up with the voracious speed at which we consume images with over 24 million gigabytes of stored data, which includes a seemingly unlimited stream of new shots of outer space taken by the rovers on Mars (rest in peace, Opportunity), the Juno probe orbiting around Jupiter, and astronauts on the ISS. 

NASA astronaut Donald Pettit believes that what has remained universal about exploring new terrain—be it in space or on Earth—is the notion of a select few trailblazers returning to share their experiences far and wide. And photography, since its inception, has become crucial to that process. He points to the black-and-white documentation we have of the Arctic and Antarctic explorations that took place shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Images serve as scientific data, but equally importantly, they shape public perception, something Pettit understands well. “Being in space is an incredible experience, and you want to be able to share that with people who don’t have the opportunity,” he said. – Read the full article at Artsy