Photograph by PHILLIP TOLEDANO
Photograph by PHILLIP TOLEDANO
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How do you photograph space?

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By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences

Mystery creates wonder. Wonder leads to our desire to understand.

That oft-quoted idea by pioneer moonwalker Neil Armstrong reflects the swift move of the venerable National Geographic Society to help in the space race. In 1960, Nat Geo’s Luis Marden—renowned for his undersea work with explorer Jacques Cousteau—was “donated” to NASA full-time to get the best color photographic record of history being made.

Marden was sent so that those mysteries could beget wonder—and understanding, for all.

“Space is for everybody," teacher and NASA Challenger astronaut Christa McAuliffe once said. “It's not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts.“

As we count down to next week’s historic SpaceX U.S. launch of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, we take a look at the correspondents who helped us understand the wonder of space. (Above, photographer Phillip Toledano captures cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko concentrating on tests in Moscow in 2016, just days after returning from a year in space.)

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1962: Splash! Nat Geo Photographer Dean Conger was on the rescue ship that plucked Alan Shepard, the first American in space, from the ocean after his return to Earth. These photos contributed to Conger being named Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association.

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1980: The first U.S. shuttle. Photographer Jon Schneeberger documented the Columbia as it underwent final preparations at the Kennedy Space Center in 1980, before its maiden flight in April 1981. (But his biggest coup? Schneeberger made arrangements to receive one of three master copies—NASA kept the other two—of all mission photography taken on each space flight, the foundation for Nat Geo’s unique Special Space Collection.)

2016: A Year in Space. Astronaut Scott Kelly looks out at the Plains after a year in space; a discarded Soyuz heat shield. "It’s wildly romantic to be so close to an actual space capsule," writes Phillip Toledano, who covered Kelly’s return after nearly a year aboard the International Space Station for our feature on the race to the red planet. "It gives off a charred scent from the fire of re-entry. There’s a small crater nearby where the capsule’s retrorockets fired to slow its descent at the last minute. The Soyuz still feels like a living thing. It hasn’t yet been stuffed and mounted, consigned to a museum."

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2019: Blast off. Photographer Dan Winters is a self-professed space nerd. As such, we knew he was the perfect photographer for our story looking at the new age of space travel, which included a journey to Kazakhstan for the Soyuz Launch (above). Dan, a witness to many rocket launches—including the last manned launch at Cape Canaveral in 2011—was struck by the history of the Kazakhstan site. "The launch pad that the Soyuz rocket launched from was the same pad that saw Yuri Gagarin launched to the stars aboard Vostok 1 in April of 1961. As I placed my cameras with sound triggers at very close proximity to the launchpad, I became fraught with envy that they would be witnessing this great spectacle from such a place of honor."

Dan draws inspiration for his work from science fiction: "My favorite movies are sci-fi." He's not alone. See how an 1865 novel by Jules Verne inspired real-life space journeys.

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Behind the photograph: While our photographers document the scale, grandeur, and ambitions of space flight with their feet on the ground, the astronauts have taken spectacular photographs in space—including a history of selfies. That's right. Space selfies. (Pictured, Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide outside the International Space Station in 2012.)

More space shots? We're created an enhanced space photography timeline for our subscribers here. Enjoy!

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Today in a minute

The photographer who changed the Beatles: Who shot those black-and-white photographs from Hamburg? Who suggested the Beatles abandon their conventional haircuts for longer moptops? That would be Astrid Kirchherr, who entered the Fab Four’s orbit early and helped mold their look, the Guardian reports in its obituary. “I took their heads in my hands and arranged them as I wanted them,” she once said. Kirchherr was 81.

Which images will define the pandemic? That’s what the public radio show and podcast The Takeaway asked this week. The images are dominated by presidential press briefings, microscopic depictions of the coronavirus itself, and front-line workers, says Harvard’s Sarah Elizabeth Lewis. But what we don’t see—and what’s hard to get—are images of the human cost, Lewis says. Check out the episode here.

C’mon, College Board! U.S. kids are tanking on remote Advanced Placement tests because the test-givers can’t accommodate the most common format for digital photos on an iPhone. The College Board is set up for JPG, JPEG, and PNG—but can’t handle HEIC images, The Verge reported. The photos are needed to capture the long answers that test-takers must provide.

Your Instagram of the day

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The acacia tree: Photographer Ivan Kashinsky was walking the streets of L.A.‘s Topanga Canyon with his family when they walked past an acacia tree full of flowers. “The boys ran inside, and then pulled us in,” Kashinsky says. “For a moment, we were lost in a sea of yellow and able to release our minds from the grip of the pandemic.”

Subscriber exclusive: These are the world’s happiest places

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The big takeaway

Dignity: Photographer Ryan RedCorn is working to dispel a myth: The supposed “decline and disappearance” of Native Americans over the past 120 years. To that end, he has created an extraordinary series of portraits, showing Native Americans as they choose to be seen, as Nat Geo’s Rachel E. Brown puts it. “I feel like my people deserve that,” RedCorn says. “They deserve me to be at my best when they’re bringing their best.” Above left, Darian Lookout, 23, of the Osage Nation; above right, Michelle Joye, a Yurok and Blackfeet woman.

Photo tip of the week

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On Mondays, Debra Adams Simmons covers the latest in history. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Victoria Jaggard on science, George Stone on travel, and Rachael Bale on animal and wildlife news.

The last glimpse

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Understanding: Photographer Thomas J. Abercrombie converted to Islam in part to better understand the cultures he covered in the Middle East for National Geographic. The conversion also gave him access to Mecca, one of many sites in the region he portrayed in a 1972 magazine article. The image above, a favorite of senior digital archivist Sara Manco, shows just-washed rugs drying in the sun near Tehran, Iran. “I love the figures dwarfed by large rugs, which are often intricate works of art when viewed up close,” Manco says.

Related: These vintage photographs portray candid snapshots of the past

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse and Eslah Attar selected the photographs. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good weekend!