The Story in the Details: Space Shuttle Gigapan

The interior areas of a space shuttle orbiter are remarkably small. A quick tour is all it takes to experience every inch of the living space a group of astronauts would inhabit for up to 17 days in orbit. When prepared for launch and full of scientific equipment and living supplies, sharing that area with six others seems almost unimaginable.

But so does taking a one thousand-image photograph.

(See: “Space Shuttle in Extreme Detail: Exclusive New Pictures“)

I wanted to photographically capture that area three-dimensionally in a way that only astronauts had experienced. Not one inch is wasted in Discovery so every inch is worth investigating. Locations not covered in instruments, switches or monitors have squares of blue velcro to allow temporary materials to attach while in zero gravity. The floor is scratched, paint is chipped, and all surfaces are worn from decades of use. These details are perfect for a high-definition panorama.

Taking a gigapan picture in a tiny room involves a totally different photographic mindset than using a wide-angle lens or other technique. One must think outside of the frame because no frame exists when capturing an enormous single image. When composition isn’t regulated to 35mm, the possibilities are endless, but every detail becomes important and visible.

A wide-angle view of the flight deck of space shuttle Atlantis. Photo Credit: Jon Brack


The first thing I locate when setting up my shot is a visual sweet spot in that tight space, a central location where almost everything important is visible from the tripod point-of-view. There are always tradeoffs with what to include. Am I getting as much of the content as possible while still leaving places to hide lights behind sightlines? Once the shot and starting point is established, I have to check and make sure everything in the room is set, as no changes can be made once you’re underway.

(See: “Gigapan: Space Shuttle Discovery Mid-Deck“)

Then the photographic process begins. I’ll take over a thousand individual pictures from floor to ceiling in an automated grid. The whole set of images is only as good as each individual frame so each dark corner or over-exposed highlight must be accounted for. Dramatic depth-of-field changes require careful and often multiple focus and aperture settings because I have only one opportunity to capture all the images I’ll need. With each exposure lasting at least a second to allow for the clarity of a low ISO (an important key to the high resolution of the final image), this process takes three to four intense hours. But capturing the images is really only just the beginning.

Jon Brack manning the Gigapan on the flight deck of Discovery. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton


When these hundreds of detailed pictures are loaded into a computer, they become a puzzle of maddening proportions, a mosaic of bits and pieces cut from a confusing greater whole. In the post-processing workflow, this requires sorting, focus stacking, and color correction, resulting in the 608 finished pictures ready to be stitched into a 360-degree panorama. They must be arranged and rearranged until the stitching software seamlessly connects them.

(See: “Gigapan: Space Shuttle Discovery Toilet“)

Each one of these detailed frames tells a story – a small piece of the history of Discovery and her 39 trips into space.  Individually, their seemingly random colors, shapes, and lines are unintelligible to the casual observer but I came to know every pixel and where it fits in with its surroundings. Finding a new switch (like “Body Flap,” which still brings a smile) in a location that I’ve seen dozens of times is always an excellent moment.

The process can sometimes be maddening, but the result is unbelievably rewarding. I never thought that I’d be lucky enough to photograph let alone memorize the interior areas of a space shuttle in such intimate detail. It’s almost unimaginable.

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