Did you ever read a “choose-your-own-adventure” book as a kid? What about watching old episodes of Law & Order on cable? I enjoyed both, since it always felt like I was really working to solve a problem, either on my own or vicariously through Detective Lennie Briscoe (played by the incomparable Jerry Orbach). Sometimes, my job as a curator at the National Air and Space Museum benefits from my love of solving a mystery, and researching the collection of space cameras gave me that opportunity starting in 2004.
The 1970s were not necessarily a time of diligent record keeping when it came to space artifacts transferred from NASA to the Museum. Often, items remained at remote locations and NASA only conveyed legal title for the objects. At other times, large shipments of the same type of item arrived at the Museum with very little documentation other than a list of object names. Wading through this documentation (made easier in recent years by an immense scanning project undertaken by our Registrar’s office – meaning our legal documents regarding artifacts are available electronically now), can be time-consuming, and usually requires one to be very skilled at reading between the lines. Using any of this to determine issues like who manufactured the item, what purpose it served, and if it flew on a mission can be near impossible.
This is where I found myself in 2005, at almost the beginning of my days as the curator responsible for the space camera collection, having to inspect the return of some loaned items from NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC). Many were part of the same lot of items we received title to back in 1973, but stayed on loan to JSC. One item was particularly intriguing: a camera with absolutely no markings on it, but with a large lens and three rubberized “feet” affixed to the magazine and lens. My first speculative thoughts caused me to write a short note in my database record for the camera on the day I inspected it, “stripped of any external markings; may not be Apollo, appears to be Mercury/Gemini era – 5/17/2005.” My first instinct was that the name for the artifact in the database was incorrect: only Hasselblad and a few Nikon cameras were used during Apollo. That much I knew. In the documents associated with the acquisition of the camera, it is listed simply as “Artifact, Camera, 35mm, w/lens, Modified.” Assigned the catalog number A19770553000, this camera must have received a notation about Apollo by a later curator, but the paper trail does not reflect that. What I did not know, and would not for some time yet, was just how unique the camera I had just encountered was.
Without any better leads, and other pressing issues to attend to, I dropped my research. I should note that at this point in my career, I was also preparing to begin a PhD program in history at George Mason University. In the fall of 2005, I was focused on coursework and the early stages of dissertation research. Three years later, inspired by one of our amazing research fellows who liked to solve mysteries, Matthew Hersch, and my own dissertation research on astronaut photography, I took up the inquiry again.
You see, here is where my tales of curatorial and scholarly research come together. While collecting mission documents about early spaceflight, I came across one for the Mercury Faith 7 flight of Gordon Cooper. Each mission produced a final report, with contributions from engineers, scientists, mission managers, and of course, the astronaut. Almost by chance, in reading through the report, I noticed a strange photo of one of the cameras Cooper used during his flight. It rang some bells in my head, and I got Matthew to help confirm my suspicions. As far as we could tell, the photo of the camera in the mission report and the camera I inspected in 2005 were the same. For use in space, NASA frequently modified commercially produced models, stripping them of unnecessary parts and coverings, adding features to assist the astronaut in the low-gravity environment of orbit. The text of Faith 7 mission report helped confirm this again: “three small supports or “feet” were provided to aid the pilot in positioning the camera against the window for aiming.”
You might ask now if I am 100% sure I found the proof I needed to say that the camera we have here is the camera Cooper used. My suspicious, Magic 8 Ball mind says “all signs point to yes,” but my Lenny Briscoe and Law & Order-loving mind will remain a bit circumspect, knowing that what evidence I have is circumstantial at best, not a smoking gun. As a curator, however, I continue the quest for answers despite the hindrances, and hope that I can clear away some of the mud to reveal a layer of truth in the documentation of the National Collection of space cameras.
Jennifer Levassuer is a museum specialist in the Space History Division. Her dissertation topic is a cultural history of astronaut photography through the Apollo program, and is the curator responsible for space cameras and other personal equipment.