The man behind the camera: An interview with NASA’s chief photographer, Bill Ingalls

Having been with NASA for over 25 years, Bill Ingalls tells us what it’s like to take photos for the world’s biggest space agency.

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Bill Ingalls with camera

If you’ve ever seen a NASA launch image, or one of their countless other images from Earth, you will almost certainly have seen a particular credit on the images: Bill Ingalls. He’s the brains and brawn behind a huge amount of the stunning NASA photography that you’ve seen, and indeed a lot of the images we use in All About Space, so we decided to catch up with the man himself and get the story from behind the scenes.

How did you get involved with NASA?

I started at NASA as an intern in the summer of 1987, and during that time I was involved in television as a writer and producer with the TV folks at NASA. But they were in an office together with the office communications, which housed the photo department as well, and I did some work doing photo research and helping out. I left that summer but I really enjoyed my experience and I stayed in contact quite a bit hoping that something could come of that. Finally I think they got tired of me calling every day and they said they didn’t have anything in TV but they had something for me in photography.

What was the role?

The photo position at NASA HQ many years ago during the Apollo days was of some stature, but since a gentlemen called Bill Taub had left the position then it had really kind of declined in the capabilities and qualities. It wasn’t what it used to be. So we got started off with some new equipment and some of the old equipment in 1989, and I’ve been doing it ever since, building and growing and learning, still trying to figure out how to do this right, but it’s been a lot of fun.

Ingalls on helicopter
Ingalls travels across the world in his role for NASA

What range of things do you photograph today?

Well our office really covers just about everything. There are five of us in our office, it’s a contract photo shop for NASA but we’re physically located at NASA HQ in Washington, and we have an archive of 60 to 70,000 negatives. We’ve got two researchers who research those archives and provide images to the news media and the public, and then we’ve got myself as a photographer and two others who share multiple responsibilities as photographers, photo editors and image archivists. So our assignments are varied, everything from just grip and grin handshake VIP meetings with the administrator in his office to White House events that are related to NASA to of course launches and other scientific programmes that take place all around the world.

What are your favourite things to shoot?

Well you know that changes year to year depending on my experience level and how often I’ve done something. I’d say right now my most enjoyable thing is the Soyuz landings, they’re a lot of fun to me and that’s probably the newest thing in my repertoire. But I enjoy the challenge of the things I’ve done repetitively too, trying to make a unique image out of something I’ve done over and over. With the Soyuz launch for example we’re pretty much always in the same place, but we’re able to put remote [cameras] out around the launch pad, and we’re always trying to find creative new angles on that and to explore what possibilities there are to make some unique imagery.

What happens during the Soyuz landings?

There are approximately 12 helicopters that are involved in the landing, there are a number of fixed wing aircraft as well, and then there are three of four all-terrain vehicles on the ground. So there’s a whole flotilla if you will of support personnel in the air and on the ground that are off for a landing in the middle of Kazakhstan. I’m in a media helo, and we get in the air a good 30 minutes or so before the Soyuz is expected to come in for entry.

Expedition 36 landing
To capture images of Soyuz landings Ingalls flies out in a fleet of aircraft

The helicopter pilots do basically a large circle around the area of the expected landing, and they open the helo door when we’ve got a visual on the Soyuz coming down on parachutes. I’ll lay down with my head, shoulders and camera gear sticking out the door, and another photographer will lay down next to me. We typically have 2 guys sitting on top of us who are shooting video or stills, so by the time it’s all going we have about six of us leaning out the door of this Russian Mi-8 helicopter. The helicopter pilots are just amazing, they circle around the Soyuz and get us in pretty close on top of it after it’s down below us, and then the real challenge is trying to nail the shot of the Soyuz as it hits the ground. There are retrorockets that fire on the Soyuz and they only fire for a few milliseconds, so trying to get that shot is really difficult, especially as when it’s a cloudy day and there’s no shadow on the ground to use as a reference you have no idea looking down at that thing how high above the ground the Soyuz is.

What happens when it’s landed?

The helicopter will circle around and eventually get us down on the ground and then it’s a little bit of a jostling act on the ground, everyone wants to try to be close and get a shot of the crew as they’re coming out of the capsule. But it’s exciting, it’s fun to see the crew who’s been in space for five or six months, and see them enjoying being back on ground and trying to get their legs again. They’re not always able to get up and just start walking around, the medical personnel take care of them, so trying to capture that with any kind of emotion is always the challenge.

Soyuz landing
Capturing a perfect image of a Soyuz spacecraft firing its landing thrusters is tough…

What is one of your favourite images you’ve taken?

I can think of an example where we were in a helicopter waiting for a Soyuz landing and it was pre-dawn, so we were pretty concerned we weren’t going to see it come down on parachutes. And that was the case, we did not, we never saw it come down. Our helicopter pilot located it after it landed and circled around the landing site a few times and there were already ground personnel setting up lights and ropes around the Soyuz and keeping crowds back. And it turned out to be a really nice picture because there was just a little bit of dawn coming up and there was snow on the ground and you could see the headlights of all the vehicles trying to make their way to the Soyuz and people all around it, it just turned into a nice little aerial image, so that was one of those nice pleasant surprises where I was disappointed at first but it turned out to be a nice picture in the end.

Soyuz landing at night
Ingalls says this night shot of a Soyuz landing is one of his favourite images

What’s the method behind using remote cameras for those launch shots?

For Soyuz the rocket is very much like clockwork. We don’t have to worry about a launch window; when they say they’re going to launch, they launch. So we are always trying to simplify our setup and make things as light and as quick as possible, because we often have to grab our cameras and get out of town quickly. So for the Soyuz we’ve simplified it down to just a camera on a tripod with an off-the-shelf cable release with a timer on it, and 30 seconds before launch it starts shooting three frames per second. So it’s very simple, you’re just making sure you have a good location and the cameras are in a fairly safe area where the debris won’t get them too much. So that’s the remote cameras around the pad.

What about American launches?

For other rocket launches such as we had [on 18 November 2013] down in Florida with the MAVEN spacecraft launch on the Atlas V rocket, that had a launch window anywhere from 1:28pm to 3:28pm. So you can’t just use a countdown trigger for that otherwise your camera would fire right away at 1:28pm. So we use a number of different triggers out there; I use one from a friend of mine that’s sound activated. It just basically has a microphone attached that [tells the camera] to start listening for a loud sound [the launch], and as soon as you hear it start firing.

Cygnus launch
All those glorious launch images you’ve seen? They’re probably taken by Ingalls, including this shot of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft launching on 18 September 2013

What are your highlights from your time at NASA?

One of the early missions I did with NASA was the Dante II robot. Dante I went into a volcano in Antarctica, but with Dante II they put it into an active volcano in Mount Spurr, Alaska and they dropped me in the volcano with it to get its picture. That’s still probably one of my favourite missions I’ve ever done, I really enjoyed the whole experience being in Alaska and being in a volcano, it was a lot of fun. I said it’s just like NASA to build a robot to go where no man should go and then to put me in to take its picture! The Dante II robot was testing being an autonomous robot, so it was on a tether and it rappelled itself into the volcano and it had some fully autonomous capabilities. It was also being controlled from I think the AMES research centre in California. So it was a whole learning curve for NASA on how to use robots in remote locations, and it was preparation for a lot of our Mars missions that we do these days. I was on a radio with a couple of other guys in there with me and every once in a while we’d get a radio call from Anchorage, Alaska where there was a guy that would read off seismology readings to us. He would say he’d just got a reading of a tremor, take cover, and sure enough pretty much seconds after we get the radio call rocks would start to fall down from the walls at the edge of the volcano. It was fascinating. We were never really in harm’s way, we were pretty safe, but it was a lot of fun.

Dante II robot
Ingalls was sent into a volcano to capture images of the Dante II robot, seen here

What has changed since you started at NASA, particularly with what you’re allowed to shoot?

I would say it’s actually become a little more restricted in terms of working with the Russians. We used to have a lot more freedom, but now they’ve clamped down a little bit more. When I first started going over there I actually had more access than I would have to the American side of things. I used to ride with the crew on the bus when they were going to the launchpad and be right there with them the whole time, even as they suited up. I would be with them in Baikonur weeks before they launched and following and shadowing their every move. Not so much today, it’s very much just planned photo opportunities along the way. I can understand why that happens; it becomes a logistical issue to have lots of media running around. There are more eyeballs now in the press that travel over to these events so they have to try to control them a little bit more, but that can be frustrating for me having had those experiences before and gained that access.

Are there images you haven’t got yet that you want to get?

Looking back at my work and everything I’ve done, the biggest thing that is missing for me and that I want to start concentrating on is the people themselves. And I don’t just mean the astronauts, but the other people who are working for NASA. I had a really big realisation when the Space Shuttles were going to their retirement homes. I organised and was in charge of a huge photo team across multiple agencies for capturing that imagery and we did a fantastic job of showing the shuttles flying over Washington, over Los Angeles, all over the place. But the biggest piece that I’ve started to notice is missing is the human side of all of this, the emotion and the reaction. Yes rocket launches are cool, but seeing reaction, seeing emotion, is the biggest thing I am missing from my work right now, and that’s what I want to try to pursue more of.

Finally, what are you most looking forward to photographing in future?

Humans, Americans, launching on American soil once again. I’m really looking forward to doing that.

Bill Ingalls was talking to Jonathan O’Callaghan for an article in All About Space issue 20.

Images courtesy of Kevin Baird (top), Bill Ingalls and NASA

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