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Roland Miller advises astronaut on space station photography

by Public Relations and Marketing | Published May 01, 2018

The International Space Station (ISS) dazzles Earthlings today, but like many other space vehicles or structures, it one day will face obsolescence and be abandoned to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. To document the space station’s inner workings for current and future generations, Roland Miller, a College of Lake County dean and professional photographer, has worked with an Italian astronaut/photographer in a rare, if not the only, collaboration between an Earth-bound visual artist and an orbiting astronaut.

Miller, dean of CLC’s Communication Arts, Humanities and Fine Arts division, coordinated with NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency last fall to work with Italian astronaut and photographer Paolo Nespoli. Using the power of the internet, email and smartphones, Miller guided the work of the orbiting Nespoli, who took 125 photos from last September to December.

The venture, Miller said, is part Photo of astronaut Paolo Nespoli in space stationof a growing field known as space archaeology, an effort to either photograph or preserve artifacts of space vehicles and related equipment before it either burns up upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere or, if land-based, decomposes or rusts away over time. “The ISS is one of the most advanced structures that humans ever have built, but it will not last forever,” Miller said. “We need to photograph what the ISS looked like, and that includes the interior as well as the exterior.”  

Photo: Collaborating with an Earth-bound, College of Lake County dean Roland Miller, Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli photographs a locker of medical equipment and emergency gear aboard the International Space Station in August 2017. (Image courtesy of NASA and the Italian Space Agency.)

Space-related equipment is a familiar subject for Miller, who has photographed deactivated launch pads and published a 176-page book, “Abandoned in Place: Preserving America’s Space History” (University of New Mexico Press, 2016).

Miller’s interest in capturing images from the space program began when he taught photography at Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Fla., near Cape Canaveral in the 1990s. He often had NASA employees in his classes, and the networking eventually led to Miller’s access to photograph the space shuttle in its hangar and at launch. His works were displayed in the astronauts’ living quarters in Cape Canaveral, and they didn’t go unnoticed.

Fifteen years later, in December 2014, Miller met U.S. astronaut Cady Coleman at a media event for the test-flight launch of the Orion interplanetary spacecraft. “Cady said she remembered my work, and she expressed a wish to incorporate my photographic approach to astronauts aboard the space station,” Miller recalled. Coleman also happens to be an accomplished flutist, and in 2011, on the 50th anniversary of the first-ever human spaceflight by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, an orbiting Coleman played a first Earth-space duet with flutist Ian Anderson of the rock group Jethro Tull.

“Hearing about this collaboration, between a musical artist and an astronaut, gave me the idea to try something similar, but between a visual artist and astronaut,” Miller said.

After submitting a proposal to NASA and the European Space Agency (the two agencies jointly operating the space station) and receiving approval in 2016, Miller found a willing collaborator in Nespoli, who worked as a photographer in the Italian army.

To familiarize himself with the ISS interior and lighting, Miller then photographed a full-scale ISS mockup at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Later, NASA had arranged for the interior of the space station to be available on Google Maps/Street View, which Miller said gave him a “much better” view of what things looked like and how the interior is constantly changing. “When I found an object or area that I wanted to photograph, I took screen captures from Street View and emailed them to Paolo, who could access the emails while inside the space station and plan his shots accordingly.”

Rather than repeat other photographers’ approaches, showing astronauts doing things, Miller said he concentrated on the station’s physical attributes in a manner that’s part documentary and part abstract interpretation. “It’s important to help people understand what it’s like to be in the facility and the importance of the research that’s going on up there,” he said. “I think the bigger import is how the space station can inspire people.”

Astronaut Nespoli agrees. “The Space Station is an historical achievement, in that it’s the first time that nations on Earth have come from divergent political goals to work together, nevertheless of what happens on the ground, to try to achieve something that’s useful for everybody,” he said in a YouTube video produced by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “In the future, this example could lead us to Mars or deep exploration of space. In that sense, it’s very important to document this and have something people can relate to, because we cannot have the actual space station (forever).”

For his part, Miller said he was excited to receive a green light for the project and found the work to be “far beyond” his expectations. “It was thrilling to be in communication with an astronaut in an orbiting space station traveling at 17,500 mph,” he said, adding that he eventually hopes to publish the photos in a book. “The space program has a bright future, and the goal of the International Space Station is to conduct research and understand how humans can survive for longer periods in space. These are exciting times.”

To find out more about Miller’s work, visit his blog. To learn about photography and other CLC classes for the Summer Session (beginning June 4) and Fall Session (beginning Aug. 20), visit www.clcillinois.edu/register-for-summer-and-fall.