While spacesuit curator Amanda Young and I were routinely working on photographing the space suits, she was telling me that after a series of test x-rays were taken of the smaller objects such as gloves, boots, and helmets, she wanted to have a whole spacesuit X-rayed. She asked my advice on how the radiologist, Roland “Ron” Cunningham at the Museum Support Center, could combine a lot of small sheets of X-ray film together into one big piece.
I asked what the largest film available for X-ray was, and found that it’s 14 inches by 17 inches. I made a suggestion that they get some four feet by eight feet foam core board, which is extremely light, strong, and stiff, and tape or tack with pins the unexposed film on the board. I also advised them to make sure they overlapped the film at least one inch so there will be no spaces in between any of the films.
Ron took my advice and set up on the foam core three sheets of film across and five sheets down (15 sheets total), which is roughly 50 inches by 70 inches. Then he laid the spacesuit on top of it. The X-ray machine was raised high enough to “zap” the entire suit. After the film had been exposed, it was processed and dried before being sent to me.
My job was to scan the X-ray films to create one digital image. First, I laid out the film on the light table like working with a puzzle, and made sure I lined them up correctly before I started the scanning. I used the Epson Expression 10000XL photo flatbed scanner with the transparency unit. The only problem I had is that the scanner can cover only 13 inches by 17 inches, and the films were 14 by 17. So I had to make two scans of each film by scanning at one end of the film, then rotating it 180 degrees to scan the other end. After I scanned all 15 sheets in this manner, I ended up with a total of 30 images.
With Photoshop, I opened all of the images and rotated 15 images to the right side up to match with other 15, then “stitched” them together with the “photomerge” application. Then I started by the row of three images of the head area, stitched them together, followed by the next three images of the chest, lower abdomen, legs, and finally the feet area. With five rows of images, I stitched them all together into one final image.
This process took most of my day but it was worth it after seeing such a gorgeous result. I am looking forward to doing the next one.
However, like many of us photographers who no longer use film to shoot images, radiologists are now using digital X-ray machines instead of film. They also have new software to put together sections of the larger object into one image without going through the tedious process I used. It seems to me that radiologists are becoming more like artists rather than scientists.
This image is now part of a book by Amanda Young and me called Spacesuits: The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Collection. The book chronicles the history of spacesuits from the first designs of the 1930s onward, and provides a behind-the-scenes look at these remarkable creations, including some that have never before been publicly displayed.
Mark Avino is chief of photographic services for the National Air and Space Museum.