David Lavelle

Official NASA business – do not bend

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”
Carl Sagan

The Astronauts

I’d missed the first major leaps in the space race by about 10 years, but the 1970s and 80s saw some amazing developments in space exploration. Skylab was one, a huge solar observatory made out of part of an abandoned Saturn V rocket. On a clear summer’s day it was just about visible as a tiny metallic light passing overhead.

The moon landings were over by the mid 70s, and we were into the so-called ‘routine’ days of the space shuttle and unmanned exploration into the far reaches of the solar system. Voyagers 1 and 2 were heading to the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune), and ground-based observatories were capturing images of other star systems.

I was 10 years old in 1981, and none of this seemed routine to me. At school we were occasionally asked to create our own projects. I knew (at least, I thought I knew) the names of virtually every space mission and astronaut, and my biggest project was a ‘history’ of space exploration. I drew dozens of pictures: rockets, capsules, satellites, observatories, star maps, you name it, I drew it. I wish I’d kept that project, it would have been interesting to see it again.

One thing was missing, though. I wondered if was possible to get Neil Armstrong’s autograph (I thought it might lend my project some credibility). Mum and dad suggested I write to the American Embassy in London to see if they could help. They wrote back, giving me NASA’s address in America. I wrote my letter and sent it off. I didn’t know how long a reply was supposed to take, and as the weeks passed I gradually forgot about it. But three months later a rigid yellow envelope arrived, bearing the unmistakable NASA logo. (Affectionately known as the worm, what a great logo that was. It fell out of favour in the late 80s, but I still have enormous nostalgia for it.) I had only asked for Neil Armstrong’s autograph, so I was very pleased to discover that not only had they sent me Armstrong’s, but the photo of the Apollo 11 crew included Buzz Aldrin’s and Michael Collins’ signatures too. Plus nine photos of other crews, many of them signed. I still have them, and I’ll never let them go. I found out later that Armstrong stopped signing autographs after a while, so I guess what I’ve got is now reasonably priceless.

I’m still fascinated by this subject. I follow every mission, and the NASA website is a treasure trove of incredible, pioneering images. I love all kinds of photography, but nothing comes close to the imaginative scope of cosmology. Considering the distances travelled, and the relatively primitive camera technology, what gets sent back is really remarkable.

It’s hard for me to choose my favourite photos, but I’ve had a go. Here are 33, and believe me, it was hard enough getting the list down to that!

Image credits: NASA, Cmdr Chris Hadfield, Cmdr Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and many others on the space programme. Links below each photo take you back to their source pages.


The solar system

Sol

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Sunspot loops

Our biggest nuclear reactor. The people at NASA know how to look at the sun without hurting their eyes.

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The surface of Venus

The USSR sent several probes to Venus, and in 1982 Venera 13 took this incredible photo of the planet’s surface. The conditions on Venus are so hostile the craft only survived for 127 minutes before it was crushed and melted by intense atmospheric pressure and heat.

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The Blue Marble

The most famous photo from the Apollo 17 mission.

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New Dawn

This is my favourite of Commander Hadfield’s photos, for sheer poetry. Visit his Twitter page for more.

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Skylab overlooking earth during the Skylab 4 mission

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Skylab spacewalk

Astronaut Owen Garriott performs a spacewalk during the Skylab 3 mission.

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Space Shuttle and the ISS

Engineering in space, photographed by the departing Soyuz crew in 2011.

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Free-flying spacewalk

Astronaut Bruce McCandless ventures out into space, with only the support of his environment suit and a jetpack.

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Earthrise

This photo from Apollo 8 was our first glimpse of earth from the moon.

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Neil Armstrong pilots the Apollo 11 lunar module down to the surface

How much nerve must it have taken Armstrong to pilot this craft down to the lunar surface with only a few seconds of fuel left in the tank? And spare a thought for the most isolated human in the universe, Michael Collins, behind the camera in the orbiter.

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Buzz Aldrin

Impossible not to be moved by this, photographed by Neil Armstrong who can just be seen reflected in Aldrin’s visor.

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Driving on the moon

Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan, the last man on the moon, out for a drive.

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Mosaic of Mars

I love this. Incredible detail of the Martian surface.

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Noctis Landslide

More Martian surface features, this time a landslide at the ‘Noctis Labyrinthus’ region.

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A moment frozen in time

Possibly my favourite photo ever. The only human context we have for this unique image of a Martian sunset is that we sent the rover out there to take it.

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Voyager 1: Jupiter

For raw physical power this photo is pretty incredible, although considering Jupiter’s size (it’s the largest body in our solar system) the wind speeds are thought to be only around 250 miles an hour. Still breezy, though.

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Voyager 1: Volcano on Io

Linda Morabito, an astronomer working on the Voyager programme, discovered the first recorded instance of ongoing volcanic activity on another world (the image in which she made the discovery is inset above). Io is a moon of Jupiter, whose strong gravitational influence is thought to be responsible for this activity, although aspects of volcanism on Io remain a mystery to scientists.

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Saturn’s ring system and us

The Cassini probe, which is currently observing the Saturn system, will shortly be sending back a new image of earth from that vantage point. Can’t wait to see that. In the meantime, though, there’s this. It’s a composite image taken by the orbiter in 2006. The little pin-point of bright light in the left part of Saturn’s ring system is us. Click on the link above to visit the homepage for this photo. The big version is even more brilliant.

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Saturn’s ring system and Venus

Venus is just perceptible in the top right quarter of this photo.

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First colour view of Titan’s surface

Titan’s methane atmosphere made it impenetrable to observation with earth-based instruments, until the Cassini mission dropped the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe down to the surface (to date the furthest planet-fall of any human-made object). The mission also transmitted back sounds of the winds of Titan  as the probe descended. It doesn’t sound like much, but really listen to it and remind yourself just how far away it is (on average, around 760 million miles from the sun).

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Neptune

This 1988 image from Voyager 2 is deceptively tranquil, but like Jupiter a violent storm circulates in a spot in this ice giant’s atmosphere. When it’s closest to the sun the most distant planet in our solar system is around 2.8 billion miles away.

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Voyager 1: Pale Blue Dot

In 1990 Voyager 1’s primary mission was over, so Carl Sagan, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University and long-time advisor to NASA, requested the craft be turned around to take this last shot of earth from 6 billion miles away, the furthest our technology has ever been. At this distance we are a mere 0.12 pixel in size, quite astonishing. Carl Sagan was a fantastic chap.

Soon after, the probe began its journey out of the solar system and into interstellar space. Even now the Voyager mission is still ongoing. Both craft are likely to experience ‘termination shock’ and break free of the heliosphere, the extent of our sun’s influence.

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Time-travelling with Hubble

Over the last 20 years or so the Hubble space telescope has returned thousands of staggering images. Some of these places are so far away (billions of light-years) they offer us a glimpse into the conditions of the universe when it was young.

Proxima Centauri, our nearest neighbour

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Spiral Galaxy NGC 4603

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Hubble-Spitzer Colour Mosaic of the Galactic Centre

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Nucleus of Galaxy Centaurus A

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Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1512 in Many Wavelengths

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M106

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M82

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Pillar and Jets HH 901/902

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Planetary Nebula MyCn18: An Hourglass Pattern Around a Dying Star

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Orion Nebula

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More information (plus thousands more photos) can be found on these websites: