If you love space, odds are you’ve admired the work of Bill Ingalls. He has been NASA’s senior contract photographer for 30 years, a job that has taken him across the world—but not yet beyond it—to cover major moments in space exploration.
From posh events at the White House to spacecraft landings in the frigid Kazakh steppe, his assignments have resulted in some of the agency’s most iconic images. He is one of only two photographers ever to receive the prestigious National Space Club press award. Yet, he remains genuinely humble.
“Thirty years should make for a huge body of work,” he says. “But truly, I only feel like my work in the last five to 10 years is work I look back on and say, OK, there’s a picture I feel good about.”
It all began with a college internship. A Pittsburgh native, Ingalls studied visual communications and English at nearby Waynesburg University.
“TV was my first love,” he says, and to pursue that passion, he landed an internship at NASA as a writer and television producer, doing some photography on the side. Following a brief teaching stint after graduation, Ingalls realized how much he wanted to return to NASA. He hounded the agency for a job, calling every week and asking if there were any positions available. Finally, he got a break.
“I think they just got sick of me calling and said, God. Get him a desk. Throw him in a corner.”
Ingalls was given a choice of two jobs—photo researcher or photographer, a position that had been languishing since Bill Taub held it back in the Apollo days, he says. Ingalls chose the photographer role and was invited to explore the contents of the agency’s camera cabinet, which contained much of Taub’s equipment.
“I’m a little bit of a hoarder when it comes to the gear,” he says. “I still have everything that was in that cabinet, because they have these stories that go with them.” His stash includes two Nikonos underwater cameras, which, Taub told Ingalls, "were used by frogmen during Apollo splashdown recoveries." (See pictures of how Apollo-era scientists thought we'd live on the moon.)
Ingalls shoots mostly digital now, and, like the equipment, the work itself has evolved. From his early days of learning how to take portraits and experimenting with “rented library backdrops,” he moved on to covering high-profile events. One of his first big assignments was covering the 20th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, during which time he met then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush.
“Being a kid from Pittsburg and saying [to the cab driver], Take me to the northwest gate of the White House, please—I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
In addition, Ingalls has photographed the robot Dante II inside an active volcano in Alaska, hung out of helicopters at some 10,000 feet shooting Russian spacecraft landings, documented shuttle launches, and captured countless stargazing events. But his work chronicling all aspects of space exploration could quickly shift from spectacular to somber.
In 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on its descent to Earth, killing all seven crew members, Ingalls was at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. He remembers photographing then-deputy administrator Fred Gregory as he made phone calls, and he said to him: “I feel uncomfortable doing what I am doing, it feels inappropriate.”
Ingalls says he still gets choked up recalling Gregory’s response to him: “The number-one thing is that people should never forget this day. It needs to be seen, needs to be remembered, every bit of it.” (See some of the most unforgettable pictures of the space shuttle program.)
Space buffs might be disappointed to learn that Ingalls wasn’t obsessed with the cosmos growing up.
“I didn’t collect posters, read books, and all that kind of stuff,” he says, noting that photography was always his first crush. But when the NASA internship came along, followed by the opportunity to be the agency’s senior photographer, he had to admit the subject matter was pretty amazing.
“I drank the Kool-Aid,” he says, “and I love it.”