NASA Nikon Space Camera Profiles: NASA Nikon Thermal Blankets For EVA

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One of the roles of the NASA Nikons was to capture photographs whilst the astronaut was outside of the spacecraft during extra vehicular activities (also known as EVAs or more commonly 'spacewalks'). However, space is a harsh environment to exist, let alone to function normally. The close proximity to the sun without the protection of Earth's atmosphere can wreak havoc on equipment. To help the camera perform, the astronauts dress the Nikon in a protective coat, known as a thermal blanket.

The thermal blanket is actually a multilayer insulation cover which uses 12 layers of aluminized Mylar film as the prime insulation material. The shell is Teflon fabric on the inside and Ortho fabric on the outside. 

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The blanket wraps around the camera body and is secured by way of numerous flaps which overlap and are secured in place by Velcro.

The blanket served firstly as protection against the extreme temperature ranges of -50 degrees celsius upward to 110 degrees. Secondly, the coat helped protect the camera against impact damage of tiny space debris travelling up to 8 km/second.

The very first thermal blanket type for the NASA Nikon F3 small camera is pictured above. The blanket does not cover the finder nor does it cover the lens. Two holes appear on the top of the blanket to allow the takeup reel to freely rotate unobstructed, and also to enable the shutter release to be pressed

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There is a third hole on the front, with a velcro flap, which allows the camera's remote socket to be accessed.

A design flaw would be discovered once the thermal blanket was put into use in space. If handheld while on EVA, and without a clamp nearby to attach the baseplate to, there was no way to tether the camera to anything. As such, this caused numerous complications getting in the way of the astronauts ability to perform their tasks. In fact, I know of at least one camera (and likely more), simply floated away whilst unattended.

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The problem was remediated with the second variation of the F3 Small Camera Thermal Blanket (pictured above). That fix came in the form of a D ring attached to the lower corner of the camera. 

This ring then allowed for a number of tethering possibilities when a clamp was not handy.

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A side view of the two variants show the addition the D ring sewn near the bottom of the cover.

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A NASA Nikon F3 EVA Small Camera tethered by the D ring whilst in the airlock of the MIR space station.

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Comparing the first variant, with it's 'upgrade', you can also see that the holes atop the thermal blanket are more reinforced with a different type of thread (almost plastic in feel) and are subsequently smaller in diameter. The hole for the camera remote socket is also reinforced the same way. 

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Astronaut Bruce McCandless takes a NASA Nikon F3 EVA Small Camera out for a ride on the MMU

A third type of thermal blanket was made for the NASA Nikon F3 EVA Small Camera. This version was for remote firing of the shutter when used with the revolutionary Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU); an astronaut powered propulsion backpack, which enabled untethered, yet controlled mobility away from the main spacecraft.

The thermal blanket was made of the same material as the other two variants, however it had a few design differences:

Firstly, the blanket has a fixed tether point (fabric) on the left (opposite the grip side). Secondly, rigid flaps appeared around the camera's remote socket to protect the acctuator connection and cable. Next, there were still holes on top of the blanket, with one for free rotation of the takeup reel as the others, but the second hole was positioned overtop the shutter speed dial rather than the shutter release button, so that the astronaut can confirm the setting; which was usually set to 'A' for Aperture Priority exposure control. Finally, since there was no need to use the viewfinder with the camera being fired remotely, the thermal blanket completely enclosed the viewfinder, leaving only the lens exposed.

The blanket would be called into service only a few times however as the MMU was only flown on three space missions.

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When the NASA Nikon F5 debuted in December of 1999, it ushered in the new era of automatic focus during spacewalks. As such, a new thermal blanket was produced to accommodate this new workhorse

Unlike the F3's thermal blanket, the F5 blanket surrounded the sides of the lens as well as the top and sides of the viewfinder. A flap could be easily opened and closed over the lens, and the flap was sewn with a tether to the bottom of the thermal blanket. The F5 camera prevented the astronaut from taking a photo if the lens wasn't able to lock the focus, so with the flap covering the lens, images could not be accidentally taken, like frequently was the case with the F3 if the camera was bumped.

A '1 hour flaps down' rule was implemented ny NASA which meant that astronauts should avoid not to expose the lens to the outside for longer than an hour at a time. This helped assure that the unit would not get to an extreme temperature where it couldn't operate properly.

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Openings still appeared to accommodate the quick release clamp as well as to access the shutter release. A Side strap was also sewn on to the side to assist in easier handling.

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Astronaut Joseph Tanner poses for a selfie with the F5 EVA whilst performing a spacewalk during mission STS-97

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The NASA Nikon F5 would fly in a digital version as the Kodak DCS760C. The DCS760C had a bigger footprint to accommodate its larger battery system, digital electronics and memory card storage. As such, another thermal blanket needed to be designed to house the camera. 

The sewn tether for the 'thermal lens cap', was altered instead into a loop, which would then accommodate external tethers

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The thermal lens cover is tethered to the DCS760 Thermal Blanket loop by way of a robust carabiner during this EVA on STS-114

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To further insulate the camera from the elements, instead of having an exposed shutter release button, engineers affixed a metal 'button' into the DCS760 thermal blanket which was positioned directly over the shutter release. The astronaut needed to simply press the button through the blanket and the pressure would transfer through to take the picture, all while keeping the camera cozy and (relatively) warm.

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The rear of the DCS760 Thermal Blanket has holes in the back bottom right. One is for the Remote Socket on the rear of the camera, and the other is for the DC Power adapter on the base of the grip side. Curiously, there is a male snap sewn in and situated above the remote socket input hole. Unfortunately I have not been able to determine its purpose. 

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Astronaut Steve Robinson tests out the Kodak DCS760C during an EVA in August of 2008

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The D2XS made it's debut in the vacuum of space in the late 2000s and as such would need it's own thermal blanket as well. Once again, the same construct materials as past blankets were employed, and efforts were once again taken to try to enclose as much of the camera and lens as possible. Small holes existed where necessary for the viewfinder, the remote socket and also for the ambient light sensor on the front of the finder, so that the camera can try to automatically select the white balance.

The shutter release button was not visible in the above example of the thermal blanket. I suspect the 'button actuator' may have been sewn into the fabric itself. Perhaps this example pictured was for remote actuation only since its remote socket is exposed.

Multiple tether points also appeared to give greater flexibility for storing and a side strap was affixed to assist in handling.

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NASA astronaut Rex Walheim, STS-135 mission specialist, familiarizes himself with a D2XS & SB-800 Speedlight that he will use in space during the STS-135 mission in 2011

Although one is often closer to the sun when out in space, sometimes things to photograph are in its shadow, therefore occasionally there is need to bring a flash unit out into space. This would prove to be a significant challenge for NASA and Nikon as a strobe itself would not be able to operate in the vacuum of space.

The bulb inside the strobe contains a pressurized gas in order to work. Normally the surrounding air on earth balances the pressure inside, but in the vacuum of space the bulb would explode. In addition, when a flash is operating, the bulb and the electronics heat up. Normal air cools them using thermal convection, however if the air is removed, the cooling ability goes away.

To solve this problem, a custom housing was constructed in order to enable it to hold adequate air pressure so that the flash could function properly. Since the housing could not attach to the camera's hot shoe, a bracket was employed to allow the flash unit to be mounted off to the side, much like a terrestrial flash bracket. Synchronization of the flash to the camera and an auto focus assist control to enable low light focusing, were handled by a SC-29 coiled remote cord attached to the camera's hot shoe (in this case a D2XS). The flash housing and bracket were then given their own thermal blanket for protection and insulation.

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The D3S would join the D2XS in space and debut its own custom thermal jacket. In the sample pictured above, thread sewn in a circle indicate where the shutter release was, and I would assume a hard buton actuator was likely sewn into the fabric to transfer the pressure from the astronauts glove through to the shutter release.

Unlike the D2XS thermal blanket, the D3S did not have an ambient light sensor on the top of the viewfinder to help determine white balance, so there was no longer an exposed hole in that area. The remote socket was still uncovered as was a large area for the viewfinder. Another hole appears on the back left in line with the camera's memory card access lamp to enable the astronaut a quick verification that the camera is writing data to the memory card during exposure. 

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Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide, seizes an opportunity for not only a selfie, but to also show a NASA Nikon D3S in its thermal blanket during an EVA on ISS Expedition 32

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The NASA Nikon D4 would take over duties for the D3S and as expected, new thermal blankets needed to be developed. Many prior developments were employed, such as the tether points, holes for the viewfinder and remote sockets, flaps to insulate the lens barrel, etc. The reinforced 'button' for the shutter release was again brought to the forefront and made more prominent 

There were a few new requirements as always, and the resulting blanket for the D4 now employed Kevlar and Aluminum into its Mylar construction. The new design was built to withstand temperatures ranging from -100 degrees celsius, up to a whopping +150 degrees. According to executives at Nikon, development costs of the thermal blanket for the D4 reached $20,000 US.

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Astronaut Luca Parmitano invites you to say cheese during an EVA at the International Space Station in July of 2013

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Research & Photo Credits:
NASA.gov
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