In my work as a curator at the Museum and a historian of astronaut photography, I frequently get asked where you can find the best NASA photography. Over the years, my advice has changed in its specifics, but my general comment has remained the same: NASA is not yet at a point where you can confidently locate all of its digitized images in one location. It’s still a hunt and peck process to find just what you need.
Historically, each NASA center has uploaded images to its own system on the web. A few years ago, an overarching website was implemented, but it was clunky and technically challenging to use. Then NASA moved to Flickr, but there they only cover images related to human spaceflight managed at the Johnson Space Center. Other NASA centers, programs, and projects have their own Flickr feeds or other methods for disseminating images to the public. As a result, finding what you’re looking for can be a challenge.
In an effort to come closer to a comprehensive website for all NASA images, ranging from Hubble Space Telescope images to ground-based engineering photographs, NASA just launched (or really re-launched) the NASA Image and Video Library. The website is simple and streamlined, with results that generally meet my needs. Researchers looking to use a variety of filters or complex search strings, however, will remain underwhelmed. Unlike Flickr, it does not appear possible to search within an existing search. If you want to narrow down your search results to a particular crewmember of Expedition 50, say the current ISS commander, Peggy Whitson, you have to choose between searching all images of her or sorting through all images from Expedition 50. File sizes are also problematic for those who are looking for higher resolutions for publication or high-quality printing. Most images can still be retrieved at much higher resolution on existing websites specialized per program or center but those high resolution pictures usually can’t be downloaded directly from the NASA Image and Video Library.
Undoubtedly, the public needs to see more of these images – they are rich sources of visual information. A great example is the image here of Tropical Cyclone Debbie over Australia as seen from the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this month. The questions NASA needs to answer most, which we get at the Museum regularly, are:
What are we learning from spaceflight?
What do people do on the International Space Station?
What are scientists finding on Mars?
A truly comprehensive online image library, one that shows us what is happening on a daily basis and what is being learned about Earth, space, and how humans can live outside our protective atmosphere, could help provide those answers.
Jennifer Levasseur is the Museum’s curator for astronaut camera equipment and is writing a book about astronaut photography during the 1960s.