NASA Nikon Space Camera Profiles: NASA Modified Nikon F3 Small Camera

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

This camera is referred to as a Nikon F3 'small' camera. It is called such in that it was capable of holding a maximum of 72 frames per film. The 'Big Camera' has a specially designed film back which was capable of holding 250 frames

This particular camera (serial number 1024), is part of my personal collection, and has been noted by NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX as having been used on three Shuttle Missions:

STS-27 This was the third flight of the shuttle Atlantis and carried a classified payload for the Department of Defense. The mission lasted from December 2-8, 1988

STS-40 / SLS-1 This mission carried the SpaceLab module for the SpaceLab Sciences 1 mission, which was the first mission dedicated solely to biology The mission was flown on Columbia and lasted from June 5-14, 1991

STS-42 This mission was flown on the Shuttle Discovery and carried the SpaceLab module. The mission lasted from January 22-30, 1992 and included Canada's first female astronaut, Roberta Bondar

What makes a NASA modified F3 small camera different than a regular consumer F3? Well some changes are obvious and others are much less so.

Here is what I learned in doing a 1:1 comparison to a consumer F3 model:

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

Comparing the front

The NASA modified has no leatherette skin that is normally found on the consumer F3. Instead the body is completely matte black. The leatherette material was removed because of issues with out-gassing of materials such as plastic and glue.

Out gassing is a very important issue in a closed vehicle or on an EVA where out-gassing can get on delicate objects.

The depth of field preview button is black on the NASA modified and silver on the consumer F3

The levers for the Mirror lock upand Mechanical Shutter releaseare longer on the NASA modified, compared to the consumer F3

The lens release button is black on the NASA modified and silver on the consumer F3

The self timer LED on the NASA modified doesn’t appear on the body but instead appears on the drive itself, just to the lower right of the lens. This modification in particular was considered the -303 mod and cameras that were equipped with it have the -303 appended to the SED Part Number engraving. Cameras with the -301 extension do not have a self timer.

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

A multi pin outlet for a remote device such as an intervalometer, is found on the lower right hand side of the front of the NASA modified. A Bendix metal cap/plug with a tether covers the electronics to keep a tight seal and prevent any dirt from getting inside

Looking at the top of the camera

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

The width of the body is about 5mm wider than the consumer model

The film counter on the top of the camera winds to 72
From what I understand, Kodak was contracted to develop a thinner emulsion film that was able to hold 72 35mm images from a standard cassette magazine this helped to minimize film changes.
The F3 Small Camera utilized the 72 exposure rolls.

The F3 small camera also features an enlarged bubble magnification window for the film counter.
The window was most likely improved to support EVA (extra vehicular activities; or use outside of the Shuttle such as on spacewalks)

The release button on the shutter speed dial is silver on the consumer F3 and black and slightly smaller on the NASA modified

The center of the film advance lever is silver on the consumer F3 and black on the NASA modified

The typeface is larger on the Motor Drive controller (Continuous/Single/Off) on the NASA modified

There is no power switch on the advance lever of the NASA modified like there is on the consumer F3
The camera derives its power from the insertion of the battery pack into the drive.

There is no multiple exposure lever on the NASA modified
That would stand to reason as I doubt the astronauts would be doing special effect creative shots.

There is no film plane indicator mark on the top of the NASA modified

The exposure compensator button is black on the NASA modified and silver on the consumer F3 The ASA/ISO dial increments differ on the NASA modified. Both go from 12-6400, but The NASA modified displays: 12,25,64,100,160,320,500,1000,2000,4000,6400 while The Consumer F3 displays: 12,25,64,100,200,400,800,1600,3200,6400 This likely points to special emulsions that were commissioned from manufacturers like Kodak to produce along with the 72 exposure cassettes.

There is no Self Timer switch on F3 Small cameras that have a -301 extension on their engraved part number. There is a Self Timer switch on the -303 F3 small cameras.

The finder of the F3 small camera seems to have two, possibly three different versions. The one depicted on this camera being profiled (the -303 extension) is a DE-3 type High Eyepoint finder, like the consumer version however with NASA PN and SN engravings on the underside. I also have an earlier NASA F3 small camera which carries a '-301' extension. On this version. the model has a hybrid between a DE-2 and a DE-5 type finder. The finder itself has the smaller viewing area, like the DE-2 finder, but with a few differences:

- First, the finder has an ISO type hot shoe with three prongs installed; similar to the DE-5. The DE-5 however featured the High Eyepoint finder with the hot shoe.

- Secondly, the finder has a Shutter curtain in the viewfinder like the commercial DE-2 finder, to prevent extraneous light from entering the camera through the finder if photographs were taken unmanned (such as with an intervalometer). The difference is that the lever for controlling it is mounted upside down compared to the commercial DE-2 version. I suspect it is because the lever sticks out from the finder on the commercial version and therefore could be easily broken off. Mounting it upside down however would keep it flush with the finder housing. The NASA Modified -301 version also has two microscopic screws in the center of the lever, which are not on the DE-2 version. The DE-5 finder does not have this viewfinder shutter lever.

Curiously, the finder's engravings itself have the engraving SED33101572-003 which is the same as the F3 'Big' camera's finder which was a regular DE-2 type finder with no hot shoe installed. This is a bit of an anomaly, since NASA's part numbers usually differ if the part had a modification.

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

For the -302 version of the F3 small camera, the camera finder was replaced with an Action Finder, which had a much larger field of view and was likely intended for use on EVA (spacewalk) when the astronaut would be wearing their spacesuit and helmet; obviously preventing them from holding the camera close to their eye.

According to blueprints I saw of an F3 small camera, they depicted the camera body with an installed hot shoe, but also had it circled and identified as a '-304' version only. The -304 version has an HP finder, likely more akin to the commercial DE-5 type. The -304 version also has a raised shutter release extension that brings the release up to the height of the hot shoe.

Inside the Mirror Box

The Mirror Box inside the -301 models of the F3 small camera look identical to the mirror box of the consumer version.

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

Inside you will find the standard focus screen support frame and spacers, as well as an interchangeable focusing screen.

The focusing screen used in all the F3 small cameras that I have inspected all appear to be a Type P screen. The screen is divided into 4 equal quadrants with a center weighted area-sized circle in the center and a smaller focusing circle in the middle of that. This centre circle has a diagonal split screen. The rest is clear.

Note from the sample screen shown here: the Focusing Screen frame includes NASA's serial number (S/N) and NASA part number (P/N) - this example has the P/N on the opposite end of the frame. There is some variance to the engravings however as I have seen screens where the S/N and P/N appear on the long sides of the frame as opposed to the short ends like this one.

From my research I found that image quality from the earliest photographs that astronauts took in space were not the best. This was not really a fault of the equipment, but more of a lack of skill as a photographer on behalf of the astronaut. Problems were usually due to the subject having a poor exposure or that the image was out of focus.

I suspect that NASA and Nikon were collaborating on addressing this issue. First with the 'A' mode of the F3, so that the camera could control the shutter speed based on the aperture that was set to help to improve the accuracy of the exposures, and secondly by working towards a camera that could focus automatically

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

A unique characteristic of all of the -303 versions of the F3 Small Cameras I have found, is that the mirror box contains electronics similar to those found on the F3AF which was released to the public in 1983, some two years after the F3 Small Camera first took flight with NASA.

This was a startling find as it shows that Nikon and NASA were working on an autofocus solution for space in the early 1980s. However, with the mirror box configured as shown here, the support frame and spacers for the focusing screen support frame prohibit proper electrical contact to a DX-1 Auto Focus finder if one were installed.

The DX-1 Auto Focus Finder is unique in that it not only passes signals to a specially equipped Nikkor auto focus lens, but it also incorporates a built-in focusing screen, therefore it does not require the support frame in the mirror box.

However, if you remove the support frame and its subsequent spacers, a DX-1 Auto Focus finder fits perfectly on the NASA F3 Small Camera body. Further attach a consumer 80MM AF Nikkor F2.8S and the camera will focus the lens automatically.

This reto-fitting of the F3AF mirror box into the -303 NASA F3 Small Cameras imply that Nikon and NASA were planting the seeds of trying to adapt Nikon's new auto focus capability into the space cameras as early as perhaps 1983 - a good 5 years before it would be actually realized with the F4.

Looking at the bottom of the camera

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

The base of the NASA modified F3 small camera will often have a grooved 'quick release' style plate installed. Like an Arca Swiss type of mount, these were used by a number of devices for installation on fixed mounting systems around the spacecraft and likely on the EVA mounts for spacewalks. There is also a standard tripod 1/4-20 thread in the plate

The Sides of the camera

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

The NASA modified has no neckstrap eyelets The reason being is that neckstraps are not used in a zero Gravity environment

On the side of the NASA modified's integrated motor drive lay a battery check test button with green and red indicator lamps.

Curiously, on my -301 version of the F3 Small Camera, there is no '.' engraved after BATT, however on all the -303 versions I have seen, this dot appears.

The motor drive runs on a specially designed battery pack made of all metal. Like the MD-4 motor drive of the consumer F3, the NASA Modified runs on eight standard AA batteries. The NASA model's batteries fit in the all-metal pack and connection is made through heavy duty springs and gold connectors. Four screws on the battery pack end ensure connection is tight and the batteries do not move.

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

The battery pack inserts in to the opposite side of the NASA modified, and locks into place. A retractable switch allows for the pack to be easily ejected.

From most of the battery packs I have inspected, I have noticed that most show evidence of past battery rupture inside with a white powder basically 'baked' into the metal

The Consumer F3 model can operate the camera electronics with two 1.5V button cells. The NASA modified has an integrated motor drive however, so there is no need for button cells since the camera will need the power of 8 AAs to operate.

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

The viewfinder illuminator button on the consumer F3 is red, while it is black on the NASA modified The button remains the same size as the consumer model so there was likely no intention to use the button for EVA Another small observed difference can be noted on this side between the -301 and -303 versions of the cameras:

- The metal part located on the front of the camera body that appears just behind the grip of the motor drive, is a shiny black on the -301 version I have.

- This same metal part on the -303 versions is a matte black that is lightly stippled

The F3 small camera and some of its accessories, like data backs, body and lens caps, usually have velcro tabs attached.

Back in the 80s and early 90s when the F3s were the main cameras, pretty well all the velcro tabs were blue. Today, the velcro used often consist of 3 primary colours: Blue is found on most hardware used in the main cabin. Yellow is also found in the cabin but is gear preferred by the crew and EVA gear often has white velcro. Velcro was usually white in the 70s eras when the Nikon F was in use

The main purpose of the velcro is to hold the camera or accessory on a panel or attached point in zero Gravity.

The Rear of the Camera

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

The advance lever handle is taller on the NASA modified and notched on the end.

The NASA modified has Nikon engraved on the rear to the left of the finder. Consumer F3s are to the right, followed by the Nikon serial number.

The NASA modified Motor Drive has a counter in the center that, like the modified counter on the camera top, numbers to 72 exposures.

- A Big circular dial beneath the counter allowed control setting of the number of bursts the drive should perform

The rear of the Motor Drive usually features two 'cue card' decals for certain common tasks.

- The first one related to camera settings for exposure - The second one related to film loading

Camera Backs

The NASA Modified F3 Small Camera, like the consumer F3 model, can take a number of different 'backs' (doors). While the consumer versions choices are much more varied than the NASA version, there were still 3 different backs Ihave seen that were in use for this camera type in Space.

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

The above is a standard, regular back - similar to the consumer back on the inside, but with the lack of leatherette on the outside. The camera profiled on this page also shows a white area inside the film index slot. This is usually all black on the consumer version and it is uncertain what the significance was to the NASA version

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

Inside the regular back you would usually find the NASA part and serial numbers. Note that on this particular example, the pressure plate has been removed suggesting that this back was likely just a placeholder to protect the shutter curtains, when a data back was not in place.

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

The back pictured above is an MF-14 digital back. Similar in look and function to the consumer MF-14, with some NASA additions. The rear of the NASA modified version will include either a decal with the back's NASA's Part Number and Serial Number or, in some early versions of this back, the NASA part and serial numbers would be printed directly on the back, in the section where the LCD resides, but in the lower left corner. This location for the PN and SN did not last long when NASA decided to apply a 'cue card' decal with Astronaut instructions on how to operate the back, so the Part and Serial numbers were then changed to the decal and placed to the left as seen in the sample above. Many backs would also have a velcro patch applied, directly over the door to where the battery compartment is.

The MF-14 enabled the Astronauts to imprint data in the lower right corner of the images. Astronauts were provided the same options as in the consumer version:

- Imprint the Year, Month, Day in the format YY MM DD - Imprint the Day, Hour, Minute in the format DD HH:MM or - Imprint the Frame # (the Consumer version stated this option was for any reference number up to 2000)

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

NASA also used another variation of the data back, the MF-18. Like the MF-14 before it, the MF-18 functioned similar to the consumer version, but NASA catalogued the back with its own part number and series of NASA serial numbers. Once again, decals for these numbers were applied on the left side of the back and a 'cue card' decal was on the center of the back. The velcro patch once again would normally appear on the battery compartment cover.

The MF-18 afforded the same imprinting of data as the MF-14, however the MF-18 printed the data between frames instead of in the image area.

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

Different to the consumer version however, the NASA modified MF-18 does not have the extension on the right side of the back as well as the additional roller to prevent the film leader from being rewound completely into the film cassette during auto rewind.

NASA Nikon Space Cameras

EVA Modifications

Some bodies were used as EVA units. This meant that they were able to perform extra vehicular activities, meaning they could likely be used outside the craft in the vacuum of space. Special internal parts and/or adhesives/lubricants were built into those units to be able to withstand extreme temperatures. Special Thermal Blankets were also made for the F3 small cameras to help withstand the rigours of working outside the space craft, which you can learn more about HERE. The F3 EVA modified models would carry an EVA sticker on the rear.

Others were designated AEC cameras and were usually fixed at a window or the like and were mostly set for Automatic Exposure Control (aperture priority), and very likely with intervalometers. According to the NASA label on this body, this particular one was an AEC camera

Understanding the P/N and S/N

All of the F3 small camera bodies have the NASA Part Number (P/N) and Serial Number (S/N) engraved on the front of the camera at the bottom of the integrated motor drive. The P/N number was NASA's way of identifying their pieces destined for use in the space program. You will notice that the part number begins with the letters SED. 'S' always appears first for NASA's part numbers. The 'E' means that the piece was produced from the Engineering Diagrams. The 'D' is what NASA categorizes part of the Space Shuttle program. You may see other NASA parts that have a Part Number starting with 'SEA'; those refer to the Gemini program. 'SEB' is for the Apollo program, and 'SEC' is for Skylab

The Number that follows the Alpha characters is NASA's unique 8 digit part number for the particular piece. There are usually another 3 digits that follow separated by a dash. This refers to the variation of the particular part. The variation number on major parts, such as the camera above, usually starts with 301.

The '3' I believe refers to the 'entire' part, which is the camera, including all of its basic removable components, such as the finder, the focusing screen, the battery pack, the instructional decals, the velcro and the body cap. Each individual component would often share the same part number, but their variant number would usually start with a '0' instead of a '3'

To try to illustrate this, the camera depicted on this page is SED-33101585-303. That is the number for the entire unit with all its installed components. The camera's back door is a removable component, since there are variations of a door that could be used (learn more below). A regular back door would carry the same SED number but with a different extension, in this case SED33101585-002

The small 'cue card decal' on the rear left of the camera is also considered a component, in this case, identified internally by NASA as SED33101585-005

The large 'cue card decal' on the rear right of the camera is identified internally by NASA as SED33101585-006

The DE-3 type High Eyepoint finder this camera is equipped with is yet another component, engraved with SED33101585-007

Even the Velcro patches were identified internally by NASA with specific part numbers, such as the small square patch located just above the battery compartment which is SED33101585-008

The last two numbers I believe, indicate the variant level. As such, '01' indicates it is the first variation of that particular part. In the case of the F3 Small Camera, the -301 variation, had a regular DE-2 Type Finder, but with a hot shoe installed on it. When a major modification was made to the camera where the variant was changed, the camera's SED would reflect the change and show '-302'. Subsequent modification done after that would change the variant to '-303' and so on. The example seen here, is a -303 variant.

The Serial Number is NASA's serial number for the piece. Many of the Nikon pieces from the F and F3 era do not have Nikon serial numbers on them Instead, Nikon engraved the camera bodies with the NASA P/N and often just the the first two digits of the NASA Serial Number (almost always beginning with a '10', unless there were more than 100 pieces produced, where the serial number may extend to '11'. This enabled NASA to likely finish the engraving once they determined the Serial Number and the Variant Number for the piece. I have yet to see a NASA serial number greater than 4 digits long. There is a possibility that for some pieces NASA had Nikon engraved all numbers completely, but it has been difficult to determine. Later pieces after the F3 era opted for using decals instead of engravings

Research and Photo Credits:
Johnson Space Center, Houston TX
United Space Alliance
Space Center Houston
Nikkor Club
Marco Cavina
The Lens and Camera Store
Erik Black
Peter Coeln - Westlicht Photographica