NASA Nikon Space Camera Profiles: NASA Modified Nikon F - Motorized

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

The Nikon F was the first Nikon commissioned by NASA to be taken into space. The F would debut in the late Apollo era and also be taken into space during the Skylab missions in the early 1970s.

NASA had very specific requirements for the camera. The camera would be subjected to a vacuum and zero-gravity conditions. In addition, since the spacecraft compartment is air tight, it was crucial that harmful gas or fire never be generated from the camera. Furthermore, the camera needed to be easy to operate for someone wearing gloves and of course, be extremely reliable. NASA also noted that the rays of the sun and their reflection on the camera body may be stronger than those on the earth's surface, so reflective properties must be contained. Finally, the weight of cargo aboard the craft should be limited as much as possible for launching. The responsibility for the modifications fell to a special team at Nikon's Ohi Plant in Tokyo, Japan.

This white paper will try to illustrate some of these modifications which make this camera so unique

The Nikon F with an FTn Photomic finder was used as the base camera and then underwent a number of modifications:

Internally, lubricants and adhesives were formulated to NASA specifications so they would be able to perform under tremendous changes in temperature, zero gravity and under great forces in pressure. It was also key that there was no chance of outgassing or flammability. For durability, some key parts were made using metal in place of plastic like in the consumer model. All electrical contacts also needed to be soldered according to NASA standards as well. The thickness of the metal plating was also modified in an effort to not only build strength, but being careful not to add too much weight

Inside the film transport area, the camera was modified so that it could accept and feed thin, polyester-based films; ones that could hold up to twice the standard frames (72) while maintaining a similar cassette size to the consumer model

The model I am showing here was a special motorized version of the NASA Nikon F which was developed for the Skylab missions. Let's compare how this model differs from a regular commercial Nikon F

First off, we'll look at the top of the camera:

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On this model, the finder is a modified version of the Photomic FTn finder. The finder, like the balance of the camera, is painted in a flat black - this was to address the reflective issues from being much closer to the rays of the sun. In addition, the NASA camera does not have the simulated leather vulcanite on the top which is on the consumer model. Instead, the 4 screws that secure the top of the finder are exposed, however they are glued in place, presumably to prevent the possibility of the screws threading their way loose during the intense vibration experienced during lift off and re-entry. You will notice all exposed screws on the F body are glued in place.

The function of the NASA version of the Photomic FTn finder appears to be no different in operation to that of the consumer model. The battery check and power switch remains the same in function, although the control is all black on the NASA version and chrome in the consumer model. The meter is the same needle matching design on both versions.

The NASA modified finder however, incorporates a cold shoe in which to hold accessories, such as a flash unit. Synchronized control of the flash would be achieved by way of a sync cord which would attach on the side of the body. It is important to note however, that while this particular NASA Nikon F carried this modified Photomic FTn finder, not all F bodies used in the space program had this shoe. The flash synchronization connection on the side of the body appears to be the same in both versions, but likely with some electrical modifications internally. For this era, NASA used a modified Honeywell Strobonar 360 flash unit for flash photography inside the spacecraft.

The ASA (ISO) dial of the finder is all black with white lettering on the NASA modified model. This scale is different than the consumer models, I suspect to match the film sensitivities of the special emulsions NASA were having manufacturers develop.

The consumer scale identifies the following ASAs by number: 6, 12, 25, 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200 & 6400; all in 1/3 stop increments

The NASA Modified F's Photomic finder uses the following ASAs: 6, 12, 25, 40, 64, 80, 160, 320, 500, 1000, 2000, 3200 & 6000; with varying increments

The rewind lever of the consumer model has been replaced by a knurled metal knob with an engraved directional arrow. The knurled knob would be much easier to grab with gloves on, and would be considerably more durable than the consumer's retractable handle. On the consumer model, there are metal contacts for the accessory shoe beneath the rewind lever, as well as the shoe insulator. Since the NASA modified version moved the accessory shoe to the top of the finder, there was no need for these beneath the rewind knob.

In addition to the changes to the ASA dial, there are a few changes on the Shutter Speed dial as well between the consumer and NASA modified version.

The consumer shutter speeds include: T, B, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000. The number 60 is RED and speeds 1/125 - 1/1000 are all in GREEN, leaving the rest in WHITE

The NASA Modified Motorized F displays the same shutter speeds with the following visual differences:

- There is no 'B' (Bulb) setting
- The number 60 is in white, with a white X beneath it
- Speeds 1/125 - 1/1000 are all in white text.

The consumer F has a collar-type shutter release, where the release button is surrounded by a metal 'collar'. Cable releases for this type of shutter release thread on to the collar (the Nikon AR-2). The NASA Modified F's shutter release does not have this collar design. Instead, the button is given a much larger surface area to enable easier control with gloves on. The center of the button is threaded to enable a male end pin cable release (AR-3) to be used in place of the collar type.

On the NASA modified Nikon F, the film advance lever is larger and taller than the consumer version, again to facilitate easier operation with gloves.

The consumer version of the F features a dual function frame counter. The top part of the counter shows an index of what frame the film is currently wound to (up to 36). The frame counter displays a number every 5th frame and also shows index marks in one frame increments. The number 20 and the 36th frame index mark appear in RED, while the rest of the indices and numbers are in WHITE. A window beneath enables the user to dial in how many frames the inserted film has on its roll (20 or 36).

The NASA modified version of the F only displays the frame count - likely since emulsion lengths would vary a great deal with the different films being used. The frame count is visible through a bubble-glass window which magnifies the number and makes it easier to see - especially through a helmet. The scale is in WHITE text and numbers up to 72 frames, since some emulsions being used were very thin, enabling the large exposure count. All EVEN numbers and their index marks are displayed. There are no markings for ODD number frames.

Another notable difference between the NASA modifed motorized Nikon F and the consumer version was the oversized finder release button on the rear. Used in concert with the release lever like on the consumer version, this enable the finder to be removed by the astronauts. The larger button provded considerably more surface area to activate effectively with gloves on. Once again, the button was black instead of the consumer silver.

Once the finder was removed, you would find that the meter was powered with the same battery source as the consumer version, with no additional apparent modification. While this example of the Nikon F used a metered finder, other slightly different versions of the F utilized either no finder at all, or a larger finder akin to the Action Finder, for EVA (extra-vehicular activity) outside of the spacecraft

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Having the finder removed also enabled the focus screen to be removed. The Nikon F models and later F3 models that I have inspected all appear to utilize either the K or P focus screen. Each screen carries a NASA part number and Serial number, as do the body, finder, and pretty well all other removable pieces.

Looking at the front of the NASA modified version of the Nikon F continues to reveal a number of differences to the consumer version.

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Once again, the body of the NASA model is painted in the flat black and does not have the simulated leather vulcanite.

The consumer version has a self timer and its control lever and 'on' switch is located on the front to the left of the lens mount. As you will note from the photo above, there is no self timer lever on the NASA body. Apparently there was little vanity back in the early days of the space program :)

You will also notice the omission of strap lugs on the NASA modified body. In zero gravity, neckstraps would serve little purpose therefore the lugs to hold the strap were not added.

Both the consumer and NASA modified models have a Depth of Field preview button and function the same way, however the consumer version's button is silver while the NASA version is all black

Another important feature both cameras share is the Mirror Lock Up control, however this control was given a significant modification in the NASA version. For those whom have used the consumer model, you know how difficult it is to raise and lower the mirror; having to gingerly use the very tip of your finger to twist the control. Leaving this design would have meant it would be virtually impossible for astronauts to control with gloves, so a complete redesign of the control was made - making the control a much Bigr knurled knob with an index to indicate mirror position.

The front face of the Photomic finder also has a subtle difference between the NASA and consumer models. The maximum aperture index printed on the face is the same numbering on both, however the consumer model shows 5.6 in RED text, while the NASA version is all in text.

Another subtle difference between the two versions is found on the lens release button. The NASA version is all black along with its collar, and the consumer version is silver.

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The most significant difference between the consumer Nikon F and the NASA modified F is its motor drive. The consumer model F36 drive is built into the back and replaces the standard Nikon F back. The F36 has no power on its own and requires a cordless battery pack grip or a corded external battery pack in which to operate. Using a corded solution in space was not practical, and the connectivity of the F36 to a cordless battery back was awkward to install at best. NASA needed a better solution.

The result was to build a body that incorporated a motor drive and power supply & thus eliminate the need for removing the entire back and drive. The drive they developed had similarities to aftermarket manufacturer Remopak as well as further improving on their own design.

First off, since they did not want to have to remove a drive and back to change film, a hinged door was added to the back. This enabled the door to simply be opened and the film compartment could be accessed. The drive needed to incorporate a locking system for the rear door, so a knurled multi-position knob was added to the bottom to serve as the (O)Open and (C)Closing mechanism.

The drive mechanism was incorporated along with a mode selector to control it. The camera drive could be set to operate in 3 modes: T, S & C

- (T) mode was designed for use with an external timer, whereby the astronaut could have the shutter controlled automatically by an intervalometer. - (S) mode was for single shot - (C) mode was for continuous shooting of 3 frames per second (when shooting with a shutter speed of 1/250 second or faster)

A Motor Drive counter was also added to keep track of frames the astronaut wished to fire in a burst. Another magnified frame counter window was also utilized here.

Power for the motor drive was supplied by an on-board battery pack. The pack used self contained 10 nickel cadmium cells that were stacked and spotwelded together and encased in FEP Teflon tubing. The pack had a circuit voltage of 12.5 VDC and had a fully charged capacity of 2500 cycles

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The battery compartment was carefully designed to prevent potential leaks from escaping. A Big metal knurled battery cap with a heavy duty spring attached would ensure contact was maintained. The electrical circuit for the drive was protected by a 1 AMP fuse. The fuse could be easily accessed from the rear of the drive. Should the fuse blow, slots to hold two spares were located just below.

Located just below the camera back door lock was the connection for an external timer / intervalometer. The timer connection on the NASA Modified Nikon F drive was a Deutsch bayonet type UR40-8-7S, and was connected to a Nikon intervalometer. The intervalometer was different than the one Nikon was commercially making at the time and unfortunately I have not seen a good photograph of one yet. From what I have seen, the timer was battery powered and did not require a separate relay box. The timer also looked to be half the size of their commercial model. This intervalometer timer could be set for time exposures of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 & 64 full second durations. The timer's connection on the Nikon F has a metal cap to keep contaminants out which may interfere with operation. The cap has a tether attached so it won't get lost.

Common to many NASA modified items, 'cheat sheet' decals were often found on camera bodies and flash units. These decals were designed to give quick instructional reminders to the astronauts regarding standard operating procedures and settings.

A velcro hook patch was essential in a zero gravity environment. Since the camera could simply float away if not attended to, the patch allowed the astronaut to stow it on board, by simply sticking it to a patch of loop velcro located in various places on the spacecraft. Velcro patches for the Nikon F bodies tended to be white in colour.

Another method the Astronauts could utilize to stow the camera was by way of a metal quick-mount shoe, located on the base of the camera. Similar to an arca-swiss style plate, this enabled quick installation and removal on fixed station mounts in the spacecraft. The shoe also incorporates a standard tripod mount thread of 1/4 x 20.

So, in summary, you will see that the Nikon F was heavily modified to survive the rigours of use in space. It developed many advances that would help refine the designs of consumer models to follow it years down the road.