Nearly 50 years ago, John Glenn purchased a camera at a drug store that served as the first astronomical experiment performed by a human in space. That three-orbit voyage for Glenn included two cameras, one the Ansco he purchased and the other a Leica supplied by NASA. The flight not only kicked off decades of orbital experiences for U.S. astronauts, but also science experiments, observations, and thousands of rolls of film and digital files created through hand-held photography. The results of those experiments and the photos taken are what people left on Earth use even today to understand human spaceflight.
Recently, I had the opportunity to accompany the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Wayne Clough, to Congress for his testimony to the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior and Environment, and Related Agencies. As part of the testimony, I presented John Glenn’s Ansco camera as one example of the artifacts we use at the National Air and Space Museum to talk about the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight. I was even given time to relate the full story of this camera to the Subcommittee members, which was a real honor. For me, this is a key artifact in the story I am working on for my PhD dissertation at George Mason University, making the experience invaluable. For the camera, it was one perhaps final journey on top of those three historic orbits in Friendship 7.
As a curator, two things make this camera an interesting artifact to study and interpret for our exhibits and in my dissertation. First, as John Glenn relates the story of this time in his autobiography and elsewhere, NASA had trouble figuring out how an astronaut could use a camera in space. Few cameras on the market in the early 1960s were simple enough to use on Earth to make them easy to use in microgravity. Glenn found this Ansco at a Cocoa Beach drug store where he had stopped after a haircut to grab a few things. The Ansco Autoset (actually a Minolta Hi-Matic, repackaged by the New York-based Ansco Company) had automatic exposure settings, so Glenn would not need to change the f-stops on the camera during an already busy mission plan. To make the camera usable with his bulky astronaut gloves, engineers flipped the camera upside down so they could attach a pistol grip and special buttons to control the shutter and film advance. They even moved the eyepiece to the bottom (now the top) of the camera so Glenn could target the constellation Orion for the spectrographic ultraviolet photography he was to perform. In this case, we see how in the early days of NASA, astronauts developed a very personal role in their missions, and also how innovative and creative solutions became for making what we think of as basic tasks easy to do in space.
The other fascinating part of this artifact’s story is how confused it became over the 50 years since it flew. Little is said by Senator Glenn about the Leica camera he also used in space, which actually captured the standard 35mm images we see in books and newspapers. It was not modified as much, with only a larger eyepiece put on top to make it easier to use with his spacesuit visor down. Yet in newspaper stories, books, magazines, and even our own artifact records at the Museum, it seemed people easily interchanged the cameras for each other in the story of photography on Friendship 7. Curator Michael Neufeld nailed this down once and for all with his essay in our book After Sputnik, when he showed how the Ansco camera has a special prism lens attached for the ultraviolet photography, while the Leica has a standard 50mm lens on it.
This experience with the Ansco camera on Capitol Hill was a truly unique day in my career, and I owe a special thanks to Samantha Snell from our Collections Division for managing the safe transport and handling of the camera. Also, to Malcolm Collum, our head conservator, for the fantastically built traveling case, and Derrick Fiedler of our Exhibits Production division for another perfect display stand. I am grateful for the opportunity to share the story of one of our priceless and unique artifacts we are entrusted by the American people to preserve and interpret.
[Author’s Note: Additional research done well after this was published indicated that the Ansco was used in standard photography and the Leica was used for the spectrographic images of stars in Orion’s belt.]
Jennifer Levasseur is a museum specialist in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum, and is responsible curator for the Museum’s collection of space cameras and early human spaceflight astronaut equipment.