The Pride of my collection. Behold, the NASA Nikon F3 Big Camera.
Announced even before the commercial version of the Nikon F3 was released, it looked like the initial plan was for a specially built version of the new camera to be taken into space. The document below announced the pending arrival
The F3 Big Camera was like no other camera before it, and nothing commercially has been built anything like it since.
The camera had a similar appearance to the NASA Nikon F3 Small Camera in that it shared many of the modifications required to operate in space, such as having no leatherette skin, glued in screws, built in motorized drive and external Bendix connection for remote shooting such as with an intervalometer, and sharing the same encased battery pack. There were however, many features never before seen:
First and foremost, the NASA Nikon F3 Big Camera featured a removable 250 exposure bulk film back. While a 250 exposure back was not new to Nikon, having built the F250 for the Nikon F over a decade before, what was new was the fact that this new magazine incorporated a dark slide, which allowed the film back to be removed from the camera in the middle of a roll, installing a new film back with a different type of film to make a few exposures, then put the original back on again, remove the slide and continue where the astronaut left off. This was revolutionary in it's day and to date, I'm not aware of any other manufacturer that produced a removable 250 exposure bulk film back with a dark slide.
One of the modifications that was required in the back to accommodate a dark slide, was the ability to retract and extend the pressure plate. It was essential that the pressure plate have the correct amount of tension to ensure that the film would be held flat once the back was installed on the camera
It was essential that the film be aligned properly with the guide rails of the camera once the film back was installed. To assist with this alignment, the back's pressure plate had 4 tabs on the edge which would insert into precut notches in the film guide rails of the camera itself
The F3 Big Camera Back also had what appeared to be one of the first 'databacks'; an extension of Nikon's first foray into making a bulk film back when they developed the MF-11 for the F2 DATA camera back in the late 1970s
This DATA feature consisted of multiple parts. First off was a Big box that attached to the base of the F3 camera. This box was referred to as a Data Driver.
A multi pin cable hardwired into the Data Driver could then be attached to the F3 Big Camera's removable back
Electrical contact was also made between the camera back to the camera itself.
Two gold connector tips would reach from the top of the camera back, to touch the rear of the camera itself.
Once the electrical connection was made between three component pieces (camera, film back and data driver) the astronaut would dial in a number from 0-9 on the data driver.
Although I have not tested the unit, what I assume is that once the shutter release was pressed, this would cause a flash of light inside the camera back directly behind the pressure plate. I would guess that the number the astronaut selected on the data driver would then be illuminated inside the camera back and a a hole in the surface of the pressure plate would allow that number to be exposed on to the edge of the film.
A film mask is used behind the shutter curtain. Like the F2's data back and the future F3 databack, the MF-17, this mask prevented bright light from entering the side of the frame where the data was to be imprinted on the film.
The backs was designed to hold long roll film to accommodate 250 exposures on 35mm film. Another way that the back is unique is that the unit has a fixed spool on one side and a formed casing for the film magazine on the other. This casing would likely do a good job in maintaining alignment for the 'data' insertion.
The drive power for the removable back was provided by the F3 Big Camera's power supply by way of an exposed drive gear on the camera body. This gear wopuld couple with gears on the back to provide the film movement.
The NASA Nikon F3 Big Camera, since it was in development prior to the F3 commercial version was released, was produced only with the standard DE-2 type finder. None of the F3 Big Cameras that I have seen ever had a High Eyepoint (HP) finder.
The finders themselves carried the NASA serial number (S/N) engraving on one side and the NASA part number (P/N) on the other. Since a finder is an integral part of the camera that was not designed to be swapped out, like the data driver and the camera back may be, the serial numbers of the F3 Big Cameras that I have seen, have all carried the same serial number as the camera body. The finder part number carried the same suffix number as the NASA Nikon F3 Big camera body (SED-33101572), however it had a unique suffix of '003'
The focusing screen of the F3 Big Camera carries similar engravings on the frame as the finder, with the same prefix part number as the camera body, but a '002' suffix. The matching serial number to the body and finder is also engraved on an edge.
Curiously however, the focusing screen appears to be that of a 'P' type screen. While using a P screen would become standard for the later cameras including the F3 small camera, what is unusual is that Nikon generally created an 'S' type focusing screen for use with their commercial bulk film data backs
Another interesting feature of the NASA Nikon F3 Big Camera was the fact that it incorporated a hot shoe on the top of the camera body. The hot shoe was not standard equipment on a commercial F3 camera body. An accessory known as the AS-4, was developed commercially to serve that purpose for terrestrial use.
It is unclear exactly when the NASA Nikon F3 Big camera began flying on the Shuttle Missions and how long it was in service for. The earliest Shuttle missions had precious few photographs taken that have ever been released to the public. While NASA's image archive continues to grow online, old images require scanning, colour correcting and manually cataloguing meta data which is labourious to say the least. Given NASA's funding cutbacks and push to get Orion completed, I'm afraid accessing more information and imagery from missions that happened decades and decades ago is likely low on the priority list.
My friend Ron Volmershausen was able to track down some video of an F3 Big Camera in use up in space during STS-9 (aka STS-41A) which was the ninth NASA Space Shuttle mission that launched on November 28, 1983.
According to Nikon's original announcement for the F3 space shuttle camera, 15 cameras were to be produced. In an effort to verify that number, my research has come across the following:
- NASA models all carry the NASA part number SED33101572-301, followed by the serial number of '10', then 2 additional numbers to indicate the actual body number. For example, a serial number of 1001 would mean camera number 1. A serial number of 1006 would mean camera number 6. The lowest serial number I personally have seen is 1001 and the highest is 1012, therefore I believe that only 12 models were produced and flight certified for NASA
- There is one model that carries the serial number 'M1001'.I believe this was a working prototype or 'mock-up'; perhaps the first model produced for NASA; perhaps for their approval
- There are, I believe two units that carry the serial number of '10'. One of these was shown to be a non operative model. The other looks to be fully functioning model that has traveled to various Nikon shows around the world over the years. There is a possibility that more of the '10' models exist as Nikon has one on display at the new Nikon Museum in Tokyo, however it may be the same model that 'tours'
This research then coincides with the announcement of the 15 bodies being produced. The Westlicht Auction house in Vienna has auctioned off a few of the F3 Big Cameras in the past and they have stated in the auction description that 19 cameras were produced but my research has never confirmed that high a number.
That auction house also claimed that 'some of the cameras were lost in space'. While this is true with respect to the F3 small camera, where an untethered one was lost during a spacewalk, plus others lost in the Challenger and Columbia losses, it is doubtful that an F3 Big Camera was lost in space as the camera was likely retired before the loss of Challenger in 1986.
Because the NASA Nikon F3 Big Camera 250 Exposure Back was designed to be removable, more backs were made than cameras. According to my research, the highest recorded NASA serial number for a back is 1033.
The Data Driver component may be the rarest of them all, as my research has found that the latest one I'm aware of is serial number 1011. I would imagine however that 1012 likely did exist, to correspond to the number of NASA certified bodies.
The NASA Nikon F3 Big Camera would become Nikon's iconic symbol of technological advancement and unparalleled photographic performance during the 1980s, appearing in numerous promotional pieces all over the world
Research and Photo Credits: