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Nikon cameras and NASA
Written by TATENO, Yokoyuki





Photo
Nikon Photomic FTN
used in Apollo 15
Cameras for a higher cause
After W.W. II, the U.S.A. had been involved in a race for space with the U.S.S.R., to gain ultimate superpower status.
Both countries continued their work and research, and were able to execute a manned space flight by the 1960's.
Around this time they had started using cameras for recording.
At first, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) used primarily 70mm-format films.
They found, however, that they needed a more portable camera for more active shooting situations.
Nikon, whose cameras had a reputation for reliability in the U.S. market, was selected as a special manufacturer of 35mm cameras for NASA.
Although the Nikon U.S. distributor accepted the order of the special cameras for NASA, a special team at Nippon Kogaku's Ohi Plant took charge of product development.

Photo
Nikon Photomic FTN
used in Apollo 15
Space photography
A camera used in space would be subjected to a vacuum and zero-gravity conditions.
As the spacecraft compartment is airtight, it is crucial that harmful gas or fire never be generated.
The camera should be easy to operate for someone wearing gloves.
And reliability became a major issue.
The rays of the sun and their reflection on the camera body may be stronger than those on the earth's surface, and the weight of cargo aboard the craft should be limited as much as possible for launching, so there's no room for a spare camera in case the main one malfunctions.
In order to meet these demanding conditions, Nippon Kogaku's special product development team used the Nikon F as the base body and made numerous modifications.
For example, the leather-like body cover generally used for the Nikon F had been changed to a metal plate painted in matte black.
Adhesive used adhered to NASA specifications.
For plastic parts, materials generally used for F cameras had to be changed to specified parts.
The battery chamber was designed to prevent accidental leakage from the camera body. Electrical parts were soldered in accordance with NASA standards.
The standard thickness of the plating was modified. Dimensions were also changed to accommodate thinner polyester-based films.
Modifications made to operating parts included an enlarged finger pad for the film advance lever, a larger film rewinding knob, and enlarged film counter figures and windows.
Interchangeable lenses were also modified.
The addition of two horns on the focusing ring was the most significant change.
It made focusing simple as the user needed only to rotate the ring using the horn.
NASA's standards for shutter accuracy were even more stringent than those of Nikon.

Photo
Nikon F
used in Skylab
Nikon and users benefitted from NASA experience
The technologies Nikon used in developing cameras for NASA finally went into use in 1971.
The modified F camera and some modified interchangeable lenses were provided to NASA for the Apollo 15 mission.
Then, in 1973, a modified version of the F camera with a motor drive and modified lens were supplied for use aboard Skylab.
Photo
Nikon F
used in Skylab
The cameras Nikon developed for use in space exploration are still in use today, and maintenance is still being provided.
These NASA cameras were of course very costly.
It is said that Nippon Kogaku took heavy losses. However, these losses were balanced out by the value of the experience in the space project. Nippon Kogaku took what they had learned and used it to improve the reliability and operational performance of Nikon products.
The development of the camera for NASA using the Nikon F body as a base and the development of the Nikon F2 occurred in parallel.
NASA did not require increasing numbers of the modified F2 cameras, and in fact the camera was never actually manufactured.
Photo
Nikon F3
"Big Camera"
F3 and F4 cameras for NASA
After some time had passed, Nikon went to work on camera models for NASA that were based on the F3 body.
There were the "Small Camera", which was equipped with a motor drive, and the "Big Camera" for long film that were delivered to NASA for use aboard the space shuttle in 1981.
While the Nikon F3 was still being developed and many issues had yet to be decided, NASA went ahead and formally declared the Nikon F3 to be an official NASA camera.
The F3 models for NASA, and those for mass consumption, were developed side-by-side at the Ohi Plant.
Another special team was assigned to the development of the F3 for NASA. The "Big Camera" was equipped with an interchangeable film back and used a thinner special long film for bulk loading.
Members of the special team needed to concentrate on developing a new technology that would accelerate film advancement.
After much effort and brainstorming, they solved the problem and succeeded in delivering the cameras for the space shuttle.
The F3 for NASA had many of the same features as the F3 for mass consumption, including internal parts.
Compared to the modified F models for NASA, the F3 for NASA was much more similar to the F3 models made for the public.
Photo
Nikon F3
"Small Camera"
In 1989, Nikon delivered the modified F4 to NASA. There were only a few small differences between the modified F4 and mass-consumption F4 models.
Nikon positively applied the experiences obtained during development of NASA cameras to the development of cameras for the general public.
At the same time, NASA learned about the specifications that were required for the camera's use in space.
These were the reasons why very few modifications were required for recent NASA cameras.



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Copyright 1997 / 1999 TATENO, Yokoyuki