It's been a rough year and a little perspective about Earth sounds nice right now. While going to the moon is a long shot, and we still don't have tourist flights to the International Space Station, it feels like a good time to pause and reflect on the fact that the space station has been operating and continually inhabited by humans for 20 years(!!).
Photographer Roland Miller and astronaut Paolo Nespoli collaborated to create a book, "Interior Space: A Visual Exploration of the International Space Station", documenting the interior of the space station as a way to preserve it for the historical record. The station will eventually be decommissioned and demolished in space, so future generations may only know it through replicas and images such as these. The photographs highlight the intersection between people and the technology that they have created, and while some of the images are highly technical, the overall impression is one of admiration — for the technical prowess and for how highly mechanical things have their own beauty.
Miller had worked with NASA before, documenting spaces previously used for the space race and some of the current training facilities, including those for the space station. This project required partnering with an astronaut who would be able to take images in space at Miller’s direction. Nespoli had a keen lifelong interest in photography and was eager to work with a professional photographer. BuzzFeed News spoke with Miller and Nespoli about this collaboration and some of the challenges of working in space. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did this get started?
PN: When I was selected for my third mission, I thought, Wow, I need to find a project that makes it worthwhile from a photography point of view. And one of my fellow crew members knew about Roland and suggested that we collaborate, and that's how this project was born, at least for me.
RM: The idea came about in 2014, when astronaut Cady Coleman challenged me to find a way to get my images onto the space station. She connected me with Paolo at the end of 2016, and he returned to the station at the end of 2017, which sounds like a long time, but we had to get it all approved in there, and they have to do all their training on how to fly the Soyuz capsule — it's just very intense.
What were some of the challenges of working in space?
PN: We do take all sorts of pictures in space, and the best pictures are easily outside from the cupola. It gets a little more complicated if you want to take photos inside. When I started working on this, there were several technical challenges, for example, with the lighting, which is relatively low and uneven. And obviously the space station is a lab, and all day people are in and out, back and forth, moving around, so you have to wait until it’s possible to take a picture without disturbance. The station itself is a man-made object that flies in space and somehow vibrates because it’s full of machinery and equipment. So to take a picture, if I were on the ground, I would use a tripod in order to make sure to have a long exposure — but in zero gravity, a tripod does not stay, so we used something else. I ended up building a kind of bipod so that the structure I could make could be a bit more rigid.
The other challenge is the space station is not that big. If you’re on one wall and want to take a picture of the other wall, the farthest distance that you can go, I would say, is about 6 feet. So you’re very close to what you want to take, so you have to use some kind of wide-angle lens, which by itself introduces some kinds of distortion.
Some of the pictures are pretty chaotic with cables and stuff all over the place — which is true. I actually spent a good amount of time tidying things up a little bit. Every picture took on the average one to two hours to take before you eventually managed to take it, and take it in the way you want.
Roland wanted, say, 100 pictures, and [at the beginning] I figured five minutes per picture. OK, 500 minutes in six months — I can do it, no problem. And then what ended up is in one evening, I could do two pictures at best, and the whole evening was gone, and I could not do something else. It got very complicated
The last complications were with the camera. The sensors in the cameras get damaged by space radiation. So if you take a new camera to space, it's pretty good. There are a few pixels that are burned, but it's OK. If you take a camera that is there for six months, you start having enough broken pixels that it starts having an impact on your photo. And if you take a camera that has been there for a year, it is almost impossible to take a picture for high-end use. What’s the point of taking half an hour taking a picture and fixing everything if the picture itself is chewed up? We were expecting to get brand-new cameras on board, so I kind of delayed a bit, because I knew these new cameras were just about to arrive. And sure enough, they showed up like 15 days before the end of the mission, and not only that, Houston instructed us to not touch the cameras because they had a long list of experiments that they needed to get done. So there was a little bit of drama in that way. But eventually, with four to five days to go, I was able to get my hands on this new camera and able to take the last batch of images.
Can you talk about what kinds of images you wanted to capture?
RM: My approach is a little different from a journalistic approach. It's a little more fine art–oriented and it also delves into architecture. My main goal is always to make interesting, attractive photographs. There are hundreds of thousands of pictures taken on the space station, but these were done really with the intent of, What would it look like if you were there? What does it look like at this point in time? And to show a bit more detail.
I'm a very design-oriented person. I like the way that parts of the station are organized, and it’s also this chaotic scene of wires and cables and computers and handholds and everything everywhere, and all the wires stick out because it’s wireless. And it’s this high-tech, amazing facility, but if you think about it like Star Trek, where they have these beautiful pristine hallways with nice carpeting and lights, and it looks like you’re in a hotel or something. I partly wanted to show this is what it really looks like — this is what you’d experience, it’s a much more rugged chaotic environment — to show the design of the station and to show the technology.
The signs and memorabilia also tell a story that goes beyond the surface. There’s an area, a kind of memorial area, on the hatch to an airlock where they have photos of some of their colleagues who are deceased, which is a poignant reminder of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and what’s been sacrificed to get to this point. My favorite part of this work, and I don’t mean to sound snobby, about this, but I think that it works on a few different levels for people who are interested in space, people who are interested in technology, people who are interested in architecture, or photography, or art. I can’t say that I'm always thinking about all those things, but that's my goal: to capture as much as I can for the broadest audience that I can.
What's it actually like on the space station?
PN: You need to start from the point of view that you’re going to space, and your task is to work. People tend to forget that. They think we’re sitting there all day snapping pictures from the cupola. In fact, Houston or mission control sees you as astronauts — not like every else in the world [does, as] the top scientists. You’re just manpower. They need you to work. And when they say work, they mean that. yes, you do science, very high science when it's necessary, but you also do simple science and you end up being the plumber, the electrician, the guy that unloads the supplies, all the repairs, things like that. So you work. It's really planned carefully because human power is a precious resource. it’s probably the most precious resource in space. Mission control makes sure that from 7:30 a.m. until 7:30 in the evening, [you] are fully packed with activities, precisely scheduled so that six people can work and they can get the most out of it in those 12 hours. The day passes very quickly. You become this machine that works and works and works, and it’s actually very fulfilling. This was one of the times in my life that I felt I was passing my time in a useful way.
We did not photograph the Russian portion — it was too complicated logistically. There is not much difference between the US lab or the European lab or the Japanese. All of them look almost the same because they were built with the same interface and structure. I find the station pretty comfortable — even though it’s small and you’re in an artificial environment, the details are fascinating, with the temperature control and the air control and the humidity control, the disposition of the equipment. In Node 2, you have crew quarters that make your living area. In Node 3, which is very complicated, portably the most complicated, because you have the treadmill and the toilet and the equipment for exercising, equipment for life support. It has equipment to purify water and to generate oxygen, so from a technical point of view, it’s a very very complicated place and so as an engineer and an astronaut that is very, very interesting.
What do you hope people will see in this book?
RM: I hope people appreciate the complexity and the level of science and the level of engineering that allows people to continuously live in space for 20 years. That alone is an amazing milestone. And they do an immense amount of research up there. Some of the experiments are completely controlled from Earth. The astronauts don’t interact with them except to start them up. And it's an international effort. That was one of the things that was special about doing this with Paolo — it was a collaboration between countries.
PN: One thing that intrigued me about this project was the will to document this human artifact, because eventually it will be destroyed. What will be missing, if we don’t preserve them, are the signs of human presence, pencils, pictures, things that seem out of place in a laboratory, but you have to remember that it's a house laboratory where people live for six months or a year. This documentation of how humans managed to live for a long time in an artificial environment, both through ingenious use of technology, with life support systems, is one of the achievements of the space station — to have this outpost that keeps ticking. So this is important, but the second part is the human touch. That's what I think is the beauty of this project: We had a gazillion pictures of Earth and of the station but very few were taken focusing on structure and architecture and the presence of human beings.
ARE YOU PLANNING OTHER SPACE PROJECTS?
RM: I actually back-burnered a space shuttle project to work on this, and I have some other ideas and things that I’d like to do with commercial space and space launch systems. So that’s my list of things to do.
The crew living quarters are in Node 2. An earlier version of this article stated they were in Node 4.