- Through Astronaut Eyes: Photographing Early Human Spaceflight by Jennifer K. Levasseur
The Apollo program produced some of the twentieth century's most iconic images. Photographs of Earth taken from a distant vantage point gave viewers a new emblem to contemplate the global. Jennifer Levasseur's book, Through Astronaut Eyes, contends that the resonance of these photographs was thanks largely to the human operators behind the camera. The story of the Apollo program was one narrated in first person, and the handheld camera allowed astronauts to function as our proxies in space. [End Page 289]
Levasseur lays out a two-pronged argument. First, she establishes that astronaut photography was included in NASA's lunar program because of a fortuitous confluence of technological and social forces. Pointing out that these images were a product of historical contingency at first feels self-evident, but Levasseur clarifies that we have taken this history for granted, precisely because of the profound meaning of astronaut photographs in American cultural memory. In other words, the ubiquity of an image like "Earthrise" obscures the fact that it was never historically inevitable.
Second, Levasseur argues that photographs taken by astronauts formed the literal and conceptual lens for non-technical audiences to make sense of spaceflight. The book likens astronaut photography to the "documents of exploration" designed to communicate expedition narratives to remote audiences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Levasseur's close readings of exploration photography in the Antarctic and American West offer some of the book's sharpest analytical insights and tangibly demonstrate astronaut photography's kindred visual rhetoric. This intervention builds on scholarship that casts frontier narratives as coproduced with the media technologies that circulated them, joining outer space with the terrestrial landscapes given this treatment.
The detailed account of photography's integration into project Apollo in Through Astronaut Eyes will be useful for historians of spaceflight as well as visual culture. The book's first two chapters focus on the early astronaut corps' use of cameras over the course of the Mercury and Gemini programs, explaining how mission photography was ultimately considered indispensable by the onset of Apollo. Levasseur details the range of constraints that shaped these relationships: the elaborate justifications needed when carrying anything into space; the technical modifications to ensure cameras functioned in space; the perceived resonance of images with the public; chance relationships between NASA administrators and camera manufacturers; and the role of astronauts as actors imbued with their own agency. Through Astronaut Eyes provides further evidence for the claim that NASA's greatest technological achievement was the managerial apparatus it developed to mobilize the Apollo program's orchestra of moving parts.
The book is richly illustrated, containing more than seventy images over four chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. Levasseur's focus on material culture offers a refreshing departure from political histories of NASA as an administration, reminding us of how disciplines like museum studies can add necessary dimension to historical narratives.
The book also features various first-hand accounts drawn from oral histories Levasseur conducted with the astronaut-photographers in her story. As the moon landing continues to fade from living memory, these accounts will only grow more valuable.
Through Astronaut Eyes is a welcome overview of the Apollo program's intersections with the history of photography. It also prompts questions [End Page 290] about the future of spaceflight's visibility now that our reasons for exploration have expanded beyond the Space Age geopolitics that first motivated it. The visual spectacle generated by Apollo was imperative to its success as a Cold War project—midcentury astronaut photography was "open source" by design. Given the comparative opacity of commercial aerospace, we might soon begin to appreciate this genre of image making as the historically contingent phenomenon it was.
Lois Rosson is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at U. C. Berkeley. Her doctoral thesis examines the relationship between astronomical illustration and perceptions of space landscapes over the twentieth century.