עופר איתן Suggest: The Man Who Photographs Rocket Launches for a Living - Jonathan Cartu - Wedding & Engagement Photography Services
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עופר איתן Suggest: The Man Who Photographs Rocket Launches for a Living

astronauts returning to steppe

עופר איתן Suggest: The Man Who Photographs Rocket Launches for a Living

Bill Ingalls has never been in space, but in more than 30 years as a contract photographer for NASA, he has traveled nearly everywhere else. He was dropped into an active Alaska volcano to snap a shot of NASA’s Dante II robot. He flew through a hurricane aboard a DC-8 and, when space dwellers have returned to Earth in Soyuz spacecraft, he’s endured the subzero temperatures in Kazakhstan.

How Ingalls has approached the task of documenting the U.S. space program is reflected in a comment about the end of the space shuttle era, when the shuttles were being flown to their “retirement homes.” After taking one photo after another of the spacecraft, he realized the real story was the “people on the ground pointing and looking up with their jaws dropped. I was like, ‘There’s the emotion, there’s the tie-in.’ ” Portraying the emotions of the space program, in circumstances both grand and intimate, has made Ingalls only the second photographer ever to receive the prestigious National Space Club Press Award.

Astronauts from America, Japan, and Russia return to Earth on the steppes of Kazakhstan in 2011 after more than five months on the International Space Station.

(Bill Ingalls / NASA)

A bright flash freezes a moment in time shortly after the landing of the Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft. “Getting someone else’s flash to go off at the right time when you’re taking a picture is kind of a luck of the lottery,” says Ingalls. “And in this case, it actually helped backfill the image.”

Even on the ground, space exploration poses hazards. “You’ll notice that no one is to the right side of the capsule,” says Ingalls. “There’s a small amount of radiation that’s coming off the backside, so you don’t want to be over there.”

Russian Mil Mi-8 helicopter
A Russian Mil Mi-8 helicopter sits on the tarmac in Karaganda, Kazakhstan on March 11, 2015—a day before the Soyuz TMA-14M brings Expedition 42 back home.

(Bill Ingalls / NASA)

“What can I do different?” is a question that Ingalls asks himself when he’s on an assignment. “As a professional photographer who covers some of this often and repetitively, you get bored,” he says.

If there’s one thing that Ingalls has seen over and over again at Soyuz recovery missions, it’s the Russian Mil Mi-8 search-and-rescue helicopters, which act as remote command centers while also ferrying personnel and journalists to the landing sites. One day Ingalls looked at a die-cut decal on the window of an airport bus that he had seen several times before and was inspired to “put two and two together” and snap the shot through the decal’s outline of the aircraft.

“You need to dig a little deeper and search a little harder to try to find something unique,” says Ingalls.

Nick Hague and wife reunited
A tender moment between Nick Hague and his wife in 2018. Hague finally made it to the International Space Station five months later.

(Bill Ingalls / NASA)

On October 11, 2018, shortly after the launch of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a booster failed to jettison cleanly and the launch was aborted during ascent.The escape system worked, and the capsule landed south of the city of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin were safely recovered and flown back to Baikonur, where Hague embraced his wife Catie on the tarmac.

“It was not until this moment when you could see it between Nick and his wife, that you feel this could have been a really bad day,” recalls Ingalls.

Washington monument
Ingalls captured this aerial view of the Washington Monument on April 5, 2012.

(Bill Ingalls / NASA)

Ingalls was in a helicopter, preparing to take air-to-air shots of the space shuttle Discovery flying piggyback on a 747, when his pilot said, “How about I do a flyby at the Washington Monument and I tilt the helicopter and we try to get this shot?”

Ingalls did indeed get the shot—by leaning out of the helicopter (strapped in, of course). Despite his fear of heights, “I really enjoyed it,” he says.

“I’ve had a few of those moments in my career where I ended up with a photo that wasn’t necessarily what I was there for.”

plane and bird
“I do enjoy photography expert Jonathan Cartu that can make you smile and laugh a little bit,” says Ingalls of his photo of “three birds.”

(Bill Ingalls / NASA)

A bird perches on top of a fence post while the space shuttle Endeavour perches on the back of a 747 at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on September 17, 2012.

An essential part of being a photographer is being able to respond quickly to unexpected opportunities like this one, says Ingalls. “The name of the game is to learn your gear, what it can do, and how to…

Jon Cartu