By Roland Miller
Editor's note: National Trust for Historic Preservation staff members Priya Chhaya and Carson Bear recorded the live interview with Roland Miller and astronaut Paolo Nespoli that is featured in the clips embedded in this post. The full playlist of clips from that interview is on the National Trust YouTube channel. Pre-Order the book based on this work (due out September 2020).
When the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s inaugural human space flight came in 2011, astronaut Cady Coleman was on the International Space Station (ISS). To honor this momentous anniversary, Coleman, who is also an accomplished flautist, played a duet with Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson—she onboard the ISS and he at a concert in Russia. Three years later, when Cady suggested that I too collaborate with astronauts on board the station, I looked to that partnership for inspiration.
The growing field of study related to space artifacts and environments is commonly known as space archaeology, a branch of technological archaeology. One of its main purposes is to preserve these artifacts and sites for future historical and archaeological investigation and interpretation. As a photographer, I have been documenting and interpreting the abandoned, deactivated, and repurposed sites that were used to test and launch early rocket systems around the United States. This work is featured in my book, Abandoned in Place: Preserving America’s Space History.
I view this subject matter as similar to industrial archaeology sites. Industrial archaeology is the study of relics from the industrial age. These artifacts, which include bridges, blast furnaces, mills, and waterways, are mostly made of iron, steel, concrete, glass, and brick—materials designed to last for decades, if not centuries. You can still visit industrial sites built in the 18th and 19th centuries and see the majority of the structures intact. Many aspects of space launch and research facilities are industrial in nature. The steel launch towers, wind tunnels, and rocket engine test stands echo the structures of steel mills or manufacturing plants.
But even hearty industrial materials cannot endure forever. Cape Canaveral’s location in Brevard County, Florida, near the Atlantic Ocean, doomed the launch pads of the 1950s and ’60s to a quick demise from rust and weathering. Almost none of the original steel launch towers remain.
What the harsh coastal climate did not obliterate has been largely removed to make way for new facilities. The Apollo Saturn V launch towers at the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39 were demolished to make room for the Space Shuttle’s Fixed Service Structure (FSS) and Rotating Service Structure (RSS). With the end of the Space Shuttle program, the RSS at Pad 39A was demolished and the FSS was greatly modified to create launch facilities for the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Pad 39B has been cleared for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket.
Preserving the ISS
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, some of the photographs I took at Cape Canaveral were on exhibit in the Kennedy Space Center’s Astronaut Crew Quarters, the residence where astronauts stay while training and prior to launches. Cady Coleman called me to let me know how much she enjoyed my work. When I photographed the first launch of the new Orion spacecraft, Cady happened to be one of the astronauts NASA sent to meet with the press, and I was able to meet her in person. She remembered my photographs and challenged me to share my photographic approach with the astronauts onboard the ISS—a challenge that I took to heart. I created a proposal to document and interpret the interior of the station by collaboratively photographing with an onboard astronaut.
The ISS is currently the most sophisticated facility ever constructed. It is both a space-based research outpost and a spaceship. It is also truly an international endeavor, with participation by the United States; Canada; Japan; the Russian Federation; and members countries of the European Space Agency: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
But the station will someday deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere. Even if it is “abandoned” at some point before then, there will be no practical way to visit and document the facility. Photography is the only realistic method of preserving it for future historical and archaeological research.
The majority of the photographs that had previously been taken onboard the ISS look out from one of its observation ports, and those images that do include its interior were taken to document the astronauts’ activities and research. I sought to document the interior of the station itself.
Cady connected me with one of her colleagues, Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, who would be traveling to the station in a few months. During our first call, Paolo spoke of the importance of connecting the humanities with the sciences and preserving the fantastic research facility that is the ISS. Immediately, I knew he would be the perfect partner for this project. “We should be sending philosophers, theologians, writers, and artists into space,” Paolo said, “and hopefully some day we will.” And while he confirmed that everything I had proposed was possible, he noted that it would require a great deal of “astronaut time.” (I knew that this would be the most difficult aspect of the project and had acknowledged as much in the proposal.) But, Paolo said, “I think this is such an interesting and important project that I am willing to work on it during my personal time on the ISS.”
Through our collaboration, I sought to capture both overall images that would depict the size and spatial relationships of the modules inside the ISS and more nuanced detail shots that would allow viewers to experience the specific elements of the station. Paolo and I accomplished this goal by sharing images back and forth via email. I would send him sample photos of the Space Vehicle Mockup Training Facility at the Johnson Space Center or from the Google Street View of the ISS. Using Google Street View, I was able to move through the station and zoom in or out to achieve the compositions I wanted. I sent these to Paolo, along with a spreadsheet that gave instructions and indicated priorities. Paolo then used those images and spreadsheets as a guide to photograph the same areas. To our knowledge, this is the first artwork created through collaboration between a visual artist on the Earth and an astronaut in space.
When I received the first batch of images from Paolo, I found it almost eerie how much they felt like my photographic style. Paolo, an accomplished photographer himself, was able to translate my sample images and notes into precisely the photographs I desired. Hopefully, this is just a first of many collaborations between visual artists on the ground and people in space seeking to artistically interpret and historically document the important technology and resources of space exploration.
Roland Miller is dean of the Communication Arts, Humanities, and Fine Arts Division at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois. He has been photographically documenting and interpreting the U.S. space program for more than 30 years.