Shoot the Moon

For Arlington-based photographer Bill Ingalls, staring into space is a job requirement.
The space shuttle Atlantis sits silent and still on the launch pad, as if pausing to gather its strength for its final flight into the heavens. Seen from a distance, it’s a small white mark against a baby-blue sky blanketed with cotton-ball clouds. There’s something very Zen about this image.

Inside the firing room, however, the mood is anything but meditative. NASA personnel enunciate commands into headsets and anxiously raise their eyes to gaze through the floor-to-ceiling windows as a giant countdown clock ticks toward zero.

Amid this adrenalized atmosphere, photographer Bill Ingalls snaps away, capturing shot after shot in quick-fire succession. He only has a few seconds to document what is happening.

Atlantis’ liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 8, 2011, will mark the end of NASA’s 30-year-old shuttle program, so history is literally unfolding before his eyes. If he shoots too late, calibrates his settings incorrectly or frames his pictures poorly, the chance to capture this momentous occasion is gone forever. It’s high-stress work, but Ingalls lives for moments like this.

Since 1989, he’s been commuting across the Potomac from his home in Fairlington—often by bike—to his job as senior photographer at NASA headquarters in Southwest D.C. Part of his work is to oversee the space agency’s vast photographic archives, which stretch all the way back to its inception in 1958 and include everything from the first lunar landing to shots taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Sometimes Ingalls travels farther afield to various points on the globe to photograph blastoffs, landings, celestial phenomena and NASA projects of every stripe. For one assignment, he was flown into the eye of a storm to document weather scientists at work; for another, he found himself inside an active volcano. One of his most significant series of photos documents the U.S.-Russian collaboration on the Soyuz spacecraft missions, which transport astronauts from both nations to and from the International Space Station. He’s also met plenty of celebrities and world leaders. But when he’s kicking back at home on a weekend, his favorite subject is one that doesn’t require special clearances or VIP access: his dog.

People who work for NASA often describe it as a childhood dream come true. Is it like that for you?

Not really, though I did love space as a kid. My Dad had an 8 mm movie projector and newsreels of the Apollo moon landing, so we watched it over and over. Photography and television were my focus in college. I ended up getting an internship at NASA in the summer of 1986 with two writer-producers and loved it. After graduation, I taught television, but called NASA constantly. I joke that they got so sick of me calling that they said, “If we hire him, we’ll hear less from him.” They didn’t have any job openings in the television department, but they had a photography position open. I was ecstatic.

What’s a typical week like for you?

It ebbs and flows quite a bit. I might shoot a launch here, then go on to Kazakhstan to shoot the Soyuz landing, then head off to California to shoot our green aviation challenge. Typically the spring and the fall are very busy, because the Soyuz launches and landings tend to take place at those times of year. No one wants to work in the dead of winter in Kazakhstan.

You’ve made around 60 trips to Kazakhstan. What’s changed over the course of those visits?

I first went over in 1991 to photograph parts of the space program that I was told no Westerner had ever seen before. Some of the older Russian personnel were upset that I was taking pictures, but others knew it was the new way. In 1995, Norm Thagard became the first American to launch when he went up on the Mir-18 mission. Since then, I’ve seen Russians doing great things with their newfound freedoms. It’s been an amazing partnership.

Do you have the chance to take photos on your off-time over there?

I find a day every once in a while. One of the greatest experiences I had was in Baikonur, a small town in the middle of nowhere that’s built around the launch site. I tried to blend in with the locals, but I’m 6 foot 6 with a ponytail and a beard. So, I used to have packs of 30 kids waiting outside the hotel who would follow me everywhere. When I brought my first digital camera, I took a picture of the kids and showed them the shot. They screamed and laughed like nobody’s business.

What’s it like to document a shuttle launch?  Intense?

The folks in the firing room have their game faces on, because they have seven lives at risk. Just outside the doors and windows there’s cheering and excitement, but in the firing room no one considers the astronauts safe until they’re eight minutes into flight and the MECO [Main Engine Cut Off] happens.

How do you get your shots with so much tension and so little time?

In those situations I shoot in a journalistic style without setting anything up. Part of the problem is predicting what will happen. I’ve got about 20 seconds and I don’t just want a picture of the staff or the administrator; I want to tie it to the event. Being at a historic moment is great, but capturing the emotions is the real thrill for me. You want to tell a story in a unique and interesting way, but not in such an artsy -fartsy, off-the-wall way that it doesn’t make sense to the viewer. It’s about striking that balance.

Is your job going to change now that the space shuttle program is over?

I don’t think so. We’re still knee deep in Kazakhstan. There are the unmanned scientific missions that we’re supporting. And I’m excited that we’re—pardon the pun—putting our focus on NASA’s Science and the Earth projects.

If you ever had the chance to go into space, would you take it?

Most definitely. But I think you need six Ph.D.s to be able to fly the shuttle, so that’s not going to happen.

Have you ever been scared on the job?

The only time I ever got nervous was when we were testing the fully autonomous Dante II robot inside Mount Spurr, an active volcano in Alaska. We were constantly in touch with an office in Anchorage that would give us readings on upcoming ground tremors, so we could take cover as the walls of the volcano shook and boulders rained down all around us.

Ever have any interesting run-ins with any of NASA’s A-List fans?

When Tom Cruise was dating Penelope Cruz, they came to visit and I hit her head with my lens during a shoot.  I thought I had really hurt her. Cruise came back to NASA a few months later and I was introduced to him then. I said, “We’ve actually met and I owe you an apology. I hit Penelope on the head.” Cruise said very seriously, “I remember you. You really hurt her and she was in pain for quite a while.” I was terrified and mortified. Then he busts out laughing, “Nah, I’m kidding. She’s fine.” At which point I said, “You’re actually a pretty good actor.”

One of your most famous photos has nothing to do with space. It’s of Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette looking at a painting of JFK. How did that come about?

Tom Hanks premiered his HBO series “From the Earth to the Moon” in the East Room of the White House. During the screening, I peeled off to go into the main hallway and found [the couple] looking at the painting… Bill Clinton came out and joined them, so I ran around and shot a couple of frames over the president’s shoulder. I backed off when the White House staff photographer showed up and thought nothing more of it. But when JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette passed away in the plane crash, the White House ended up wanting a copy of the photo. I was told that it ended up in a book they gave to the Kennedy family at the funeral.

Tell me about one picture that required an extreme amount of setup.

Earlier this year, I was flying back from Moscow on the day before the super “perigee moon,” when the moon would be closer to Earth than it had been in 20 years. I couldn’t really pass that up, even though I was going to be exhausted. So I landed at Dulles and spent the next 24 hours trying to figure out the best place to shoot it where no one else would be.  I ended up at the Iwo Jima Memorial at 5 p.m. where 300 photographers were trying to stand on one square foot of space so they could shoot the moon with several monuments in a row. Ultimately, I found a spot where I could only see the Lincoln Memorial. The moon started coming up and I only got two or three shots off before the trees obscured my view. I went home with my head hung low, thinking “Woe is me.” But when I looked at the pictures, there was a pretty cool one, so I posted it online. It went nuts; it hit 400,000 views on our Flickr page in no time.

How do you spend your time in Arlington when you’re not working?

My girlfriend and I love taking our dog, Riley, to Four Mile Run and the Utah Park. Whenever NASA gets new photography gear, I cut my teeth on it by shooting stuff around the neighborhood. Riley gets photographed more than anybody and has more portraits than you can imagine.

Nevin Martell is a food and culture writer in Washington, D.C.  You can find him online at nevinmartell.com 

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