John Angerson’s new photobook reveals the intimate bond between Nasa astronauts
The British photographer was granted access to the team ahead of a mission in the mid-1990s. Now he looks back on the series and discovers new themes at play.
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 24 May 2021
On 11 January 1996, the Nasa STS-72 Space Shuttle Endeavour mission launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The objective was to retrieve and safely return to Earth a Japanese research spacecraft called Space Flyer Unit (SFU), which had launched the previous year from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. The STS-72 crew was composed of six astronauts who had been undergoing a year-long intensive training programme in preparation for the mission.
Following a chance meeting in Berlin in 1995 with a producer who was filming a documentary on the astronauts, British photographer John Angerson was invited to take some publicity shots of the crew. In the years preceding this, John had covered other important moments in history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the changing geopolitical landscape of Eastern Europe, but space was an entirely new subject to him and he eagerly accepted the invitation.
“On December 6 1995, I entered the Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas – the same control centre that had made history with the Apollo moon landing missions in 1969,” he recalls. Over the next month, John travelled with a film crew between the Nasa space centres in Florida and Texas, documenting the six astronauts as they readied themselves for the coming mission. His photographs of that time capture the friendship that had been formed between the crew during their training. “I was in a privileged position to observe this closely bonded group at a critical time in the history of the Space Shuttle program,” he says. “The camaraderie of the team is depicted in the photographs. I found their company relaxed and good-humoured,” despite “their demanding schedule”.
These images, taken 25 years ago, have recently become the focus of John’s attention once again. After revisiting them in 2020 during the lockdown, which allowed him the time to edit “without the pressures of the original deadline”, he discovered an abundance of photographs that had been overlooked. Bringing them together, along with hundreds of images he uncovered at the US National Archives that were made in Earth’s orbit and captured by the original STS-72 crew, he created a new photobook. Titled NASA STS-72 (Space Shuttle Publication) and designed by B&W Studio in Leeds, the book pays tribute to a remarkable group of astronauts at a crucial point for the Space Shuttle programme.
The images show the various stages of preparation that the crew were required to go through in order to be flight-ready. “Many of the images I made were in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a large swimming pool where the astronauts, wearing special suits, took part in complex and dangerous training exercises simulating the weightlessness that they would experience during space travel,” says John. But the photographs also reveal the light-hearted moments between the periods of intensive training, such as the crew cooking, playing cards and generally just having a good time. These heartwarming examples of friendship amongst the astronauts that John captured over the course of that month are a reminder that, along with the technical skill and knowledge required for such an undertaking, an affinity between the members of the team was equally as important to the success of the mission.
Looking back at the photographs, John believes comradeship of this kind is hard to capture on camera these days, and it says a lot about the richness of publications such as this one. “Twenty-five years on, reflecting on these images, I believe the access I obtained allowed me to capture a unique intimacy among this group of astronauts. Although many PR departments have become increasingly controlling on how their organisations are portrayed, it does make me wonder if this type of intimacy would still be possible to record in 2021.”
John Angerson: Japanese mission specialist Koichi Wakata during “fit checking” of his spacesuit at Kennedy Space Center, Florida (Copyright © John Angerson, 2021)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.