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Then And Now: The Labor Of American Human Space Flight

In 1972, photographer Michael Soluri visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and documented the roles of technicians, engineers and others in the labor force who keep the show running for NASA's space programs. He returned again in 2006 and photographed the last few years behind the scenes at NASA. As the space shuttle program comes to a close, Soluri shares with us images he made while getting such rare access, from the days of the Apollo program to the end of the shuttle era.

Space shuttle Atlantis' landing Thursday marked the end of the 30-year space shuttle era. For me, it provides a compelling bookend to a personal journey begun in 1972, when, as a very nascent photographer still in school, I portrayed the Apollo era labor force — never knowing some 34 years later I'd be portraying the space shuttle labor force also on black-and-white film.

Beyond my fondness for space exploration, there was an intellectual inspiration for my Apollo documentation that became much clearer to me when I began portraying the shuttle labor force in 2006: Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon — his first-person account of Apollo 11 and man's first landing on another celestial body.

What resonated with me was this essential line: "At NASA," he wrote in 1969, "the elegance was in the design of the engineering systems rather than in the manners of the men." While that tendency at NASA certainly hasn't changed, I found the manner of the labor force much more compelling than visually extolling just the elegance of its technology. As a result, Mailer's writing motivated my thinking toward visually discovering the manner of NASA's labor force in context of what I felt would be the evolving history of human and robotic space flight.

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A few of the circumstances that framed those Apollo-era portraits also inspired me to portray a few of the shuttle-era labor force in similar environments at the Kennedy Space Center. Although photography has become a digital medium, there was something wonderfully analog — something transcendent — in the subject matter I was portraying. After all, the day job of this labor force worked to launch astronauts in spaceships so that they could work their day job ... in space.

I couldn't imagine not documenting the sublime nature of the labor of human space flight in any other medium other than film.

See more of Michael Soluri's work on his website.