The brief (and bizarre) history of selfies in space

You take selfies. We take selfies. So do astronauts and space robots.

By Jenny Howard
Published 24 Jun 2019, 11:25 BST

What do you do when nobody is around to take your picture? You take a selfie. Self-portraits have a long history in the art world, and with the rise of smartphones, selfies captured by cameras rather than paint have become increasingly popular. 

Photographic self-portraits have existed for as long as cameras have been in human hands. But what about selfies in space? On Twitter last year, NASA astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who famously became the second man to walk on the moon in July 1969, laid claim to a spaceflight first: taking the first selfie in space during the Gemini XII mission in 1966.

“For me, it needs to be digital to be a selfie,” argues Jennifer Levasseur, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. According to Levasseur, the concept of a selfie is directly linked to internet culture and the human desire to interact on social platforms. “The thing that makes a selfie a selfie is sharing it,” she says.

Still, astronauts have been carrying cameras aboard space vehicles since the 1960s, and they’ve taken plenty of pictures of themselves along the way. In 1966, Aldrin used a Hasselblad camera that was designed specifically for space, with an extra-large trigger to accommodate the astronaut’s thick gloves. Hasselblad also painted the first camera in space a matte black to minimize reflections in the orbiter window. But cameras used in space need to survive extreme conditions, like temperature swings from -149° to 248°F, so Hasselblad painted later models silver to help the camera adjust to these temperature changes.

Astronauts visiting the moon then had to extract the film magazines and leave their camera bodies and lenses behind when they returned to Earth, because early space missions were constrained by a conservative weight limit on the return trip. Lunar voyagers also had to work without the benefit of selfie sticks: To capture his Gemini self-portrait, Aldrin attached the camera to the side of the spacecraft to stabilise it and get his face in the frame.

A big shift in space camera technology came after the tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart on its return to Earth in 2003, Levasseur notes.

“Fear that they would never be able to bring film back [from space] and lose all that hard work,” accelerated the push for digital, she says.

Today, astronauts also have access to internet and social platforms in space and can post true space selfies made using digital cameras covered with thermal blankets. Taking selfies and sharing them on social media is a way that astronauts in space can participate in the same activities people on Earth do every day, Levasseur says. The first astronaut selfie that went viral on the internet was one by Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide in 2012.

Similarly, space robots are also participating in selfie culture, capturing remote images of themselves in space or on other planets and beaming them back to Earth. For instance, in January, the Mars rover Curiosity “shared” a selfie made from a mosaic of images captured at the rover’s latest drill site on the red planet.

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