NASA Nikon Space Cameras
Aside from making fine art landscape and travel photographs, I also collect rare Nikon SLR cameras. The pride of my collection are my early Nikons modified for use in space by NASA. Over time, I have been fortunate to acquire a number of NASA modified Nikon cameras that have each flown in space. Between all the cameras they have collectively flown on the Shuttles Columbia, Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis, as well as the Russian spacecraft Soyuz, with one logging perhaps up to 3 years in space aboard the International Space Station.
This section of my website will be where I share what I have learned both about the cameras I have owned, their provenance and what makes them unique, but also a history about Nikon and NASA's early relationship and how the cameras, lenses and accessories evolved over time - where many of the features found in the consumer versions got their start as a result of Nikon's participation in the space program. I will also feature profiles on other early space Nikons that I have encountered
Scroll down and you will find a bit of history, and a number of links to the NASA modified Nikon camera pages. Each camera will have a profile detailing the differences I've uncovered between the commercial versions and the space ones. For the digital cameras I've owned, you can also find some images taken by my cameras which I was able to track down through the Johnson Space Center's image archives.
Soon I hope to add profiles on the NASA Modified Nikkor lenses and possibly the accessories. This is an ever evolving work in progress so be sure to check back often!
Nikon's early history with developing space cameras for NASA
When NASA first used photographic still camera equipment in the 1960s, they used primarily 70mm-format films and big bulky modified Hasselblad cameras. They found, however, that they needed a more portable camera for more active shooting situations. Nikon, whose cameras had a reputation for reliability in the U.S. market, was selected as a special manufacturer of 35mm cameras for NASA. As a result, a special team at Nippon Kogaku's Ohi Plant in Japan took charge of product development.
NASA had very specific requirements for the cameras to be produced. 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.
In order to meet these demanding conditions, Nippon Kogaku's special product development team used the popular professional Nikon F as the base body and made numerous modifications. For example:
- The leather-like body cover generally used for the Nikon F had been changed to a metal plate painted in matte black.
- Adhesives usedwere reformuated to NASA specifications.
- For plastic parts, materials generally used for F cameras had to be changed to specified parts for greater durability.
- The battery chamber was redesigned to prevent accidental leakage from the camera body.
- Electrical parts were soldered in accordance with NASA standards.
- The standard thickness of the plating was modified.
- Dimensions were also changed to accommodate thinner, polyester-based films.
- Shutter accuracy standards were critical and NASA's requirements were even more stringent than those of Nikon.
The technologies Nikon used in developing cameras for NASA finally went into use in 1971. The modified F camera and some modified interchangeable lenses were provided to NASA for the Apollo 15 mission. Then, in 1973, a modified version of the F camera with a motor drive and modified lens were supplied for use aboard Skylab. These NASA cameras were of course very costly. It is said that Nippon Kogaku took heavy losses. However, these losses were balanced out by the value of the experience in the space project. Nippon Kogaku took what they had learned and used it to improve the reliability and operational performance of Nikon products. The development of the camera for NASA using the Nikon F body as a base and the development of the Nikon F2 occurred in parallel. NASA did not require increasing numbers of the modified F2 cameras, and in fact the F2 NASA camera was never actually manufactured.
However, in the late 70s, Nikon went to work on camera models for NASA that were based on the F3 body. There were the "Small Camera", which was equipped with a motor drive, and the "Big Camera" for long film that were delivered to NASA for use aboard the space shuttle in 1981. While the Nikon F3 was still being developed and many issues had yet to be decided, NASA went ahead and formally declared the Nikon F3 to be an official NASA camera. The F3 models for NASA, and those for mass consumption, were developed side-by-side at the Ohi Plant. Another special team was assigned to the development of the F3 for NASA. Compared to the modified F models for NASA, the F3 for NASA was much more similar to the F3 models made for the public, however there are many subtle differences.
Auto focus officially arrived in space in the late 1980s along with Nikon's F4S, and the digital age was ushered in with the hybrid NASA Nikon F4 Electronic Still Camera in 1991. Kodak's collaboration with Nikon resulted in the high resolution and more compact Kodak DCS 460 cameras which took over digital duties in 1996 and the F5 film camera brought autofocus to spacewalks in December of 1999. A short time later, an F5 body on a Kodak Digital chassis flew into space as the Kodak DCS 660. The DCS 760 replaced the 660 shortly thereafter, then NASA went with all-Nikon digitals, the D1, D2XS, the D3, D3X, D3S, D4, D4S and the D800E. This section will profile some of the key early cameras
See the links at the bottom of the page to learn more about each of the cameras and to see what parts were modified from the consumer models, plus how each camera evolved over time
The cameras I have owned have photographed various parts of the earth, storms and hurricanes, auroras, the moon and even the Shuttles themselves and the International Space Station. One camera even captured New York City on September 11th, 2001
Space Images courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov/
CLICK HERE to access the profiles of the early Nikon Space Cameras
CLICK HERE for the NASA Nikon Serial Number Database; a never ending work in progress to record all the film-based and early digital Nikon gear used in the Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle eras and the early days of the International Space Station