The NASA Nikon F4 Electronic Still Camera (ESC) was the first digital camera used by NASA aboard the Space Shuttle Orbiters. It was designed in 1987 and developed over the following years before making its maiden voyage aboard Shuttle Discovery during STS-48 in 1991. The camera was built to fill a need of the Space Administration for a faster way of capturing and transmitting images from the orbiter back to Earth in as close to real-time as possible. Prior to this, camera images were captured on film and the film was processed and printed only after the spacecraft returned to earth, making for long delays in getting images to the Control Center as well as to the media.
The ESC's design was a revolutionary milestone in that for the first time, enabled a camera to electronically capture and digitize an image with resolution approaching film quality. The digital image was stored on removable hard disks or small optical disks, and could be converted to a format suitable for downlink transmission or enhanced using image processing software. The ability to enhance and annotate high-resolution images on orbit and downlink them in real-time would improve the astronauts' photo-documentation capabilities of Earth observations and on-board activity on the Space Shuttle.
Initially, the first prototype for a digital solution was built with a Nikon F3 camera as the base. The prototype was developed in NASA's lab and wound up being a collosal assortment of wire wrap, circuit boards and cables. With Nikon busy developing the autofocus F4 and the clunkiness of the F3 prototype it soon became clear that the Administration should partner with Nikon's newest professional body to bring the ESC to fruition.
employed a Nikon F4 body as the foundation for the image capture. The
F4 was kept very close to the consumer version in form and function, enabling
the same shooting modes and the capability to mount & control the
same lenses. The key change was that Nikon needed to modify the electronics
to allow signal exchanges between the F4 body and the NASA-built electronics
for exposure control; the point where integration between the digital
back and the camera starts and ends.
The sensor in the ESC was a Ford Aerospace FA1024L which was developed by JPL and Ford Aerospace as a part of the Hubble Space Telescope sensor development program. The sensor was a 1024 x 1024 (1 million picture element (pixel)) charge coupled device (CCD) positioned at the film plane, and recorded images in monochrome with 8 bits of digital information per pixel (256 gray levels).
Although modern digital Nikons utilize a sensor proportional to that of 35mm film (24mm x 36mm), the NASA chose a square sensor for the F4 ESC measuring 15mm x 15mm. According to the design team, the square format was chosen because square pixels are preferred for image processing purposes. In addition, calculations are easier if the pixels are arranged in a square matrix. Spatial filters work correctly, distance measurements from one point to another are easier, etc. The smaller sensor size also ensured that the lenses did not need further modification and that the images captured would not have vignetting.
Once the image was captured by the sensor, it was then stored on a removable computer hard disk which was produced by a Colorado based company called PrairieTek.
The hard drive was stored inside the NASA designed and manufactured Electronics Box Assembly. This box was the command center for the images. The unit enabled 4 different modes for managing the images:
The images could be viewed and enhanced on board using a modified lap-top computer (an IBM ThinkPad) before being transmitted to the ground via the orbiter digital downlinks.
Aside from the internal electronics changes and the replacement of the film plane with the Digital back, the F4 was very close to the commercial version, with a few other modifications.
The NASA Nikon F4 ESC only had up to 1/2000 shutter speed, compared to the commercial version's 1/8000 second.
I have been unable to ascertain why the two high speeds of the commercial version did not appear on the NASA F4 ESC. One possible reason was that the CCD perhaps was not capable of recording images at such a high speed. Another possible reason is that since NASA was working with Nikon on the ESC long before the commercial release of the F4, the earliest version of the camera perhaps did not have those two high shutter speeds.
The F4 body was also fitted with a DA-20 AE Action Finder and an eyepiece hood to enable enough extension over the digital back, since the back extended roughly 4 cm from the body
A number of other body modifications were observed including:
The debut of the ESC during STS-48 proved to be a great success as images were captured both inside the Shuttle and through the Shuttle observation windows of various earth scenes. Those images were then successfully downlinked from the Shuttle to Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) where they were processed on a workstation and then stored on disks for transfer to JSC's Electronic Still Camera Laboratory. There, the images were processed by Autometric and printed with a 3M Color Laser Imager, an advanced 300 dpi color output device that was capable of printing over 170 photographic quality originals an hour. The initial goal was to have hard-copy images within 1 hour after the image was received in Mission Control.
The success of the project and seeing the system's tremendous potential, the ESC became the core for NASA's HERCULES project: The Hand-held Earth-oriented Real-time Cooperative, User-friendly, Location, targeting, and Environmental System.
The ESC would eventually fly on 8 Shuttle missions including STS-44, STS-45, STS-42, STS-49, STS-53, STS-56 and finally STS-61 in late 1993.
From my research, I have learned that at least 14 modified F4 bodies were produced by Nikon for NASA's Electronic Still Camera project. In total, only three NASA F4 Electronic Still Cameras were eventually produced (internally referred to as Huey, Dewey & Louie. Although the NASA development team were planning on developing a 2048 x 2048 CCD Sensor to upgrade the ESC, as well as alternate architecture CCDs and a Colour CCD, the project was scrapped in favour of the Kodak DCS460 cameras which would take NASA to the next level in DSLR photography.
CLICK HERE for the NASA Nikon Serial Number Database; a never ending work in progress to record all the film-based and early digital Nikon gear used in the Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle eras and the early days of the International Space Station
CLICK HERE to learn about the NASA Modified Nikon F with Motor Drive
CLICK HERE to learn about my NASA F3 Small Camera that flew on the maiden voyage of Shuttle Endeavour
CLICK HERE to learn about my NASA F3 Small Camera that flew on three different Shuttles
COMING SOON - learn about my NASA F3 'Big' Camera with the removeable 250 Exposure Magazine back
SOON - learn about the NASA Nikon HERCULES system
COMING SOON - learn about my NASA F4S Camera
CLICK HERE to learn about my NASA DCS460C Digital Camera used on the 1st and 2nd expeditions at the International Space Station. This one captured shots of the Space Shuttle above earth and even shots of the Space Station itself from the Soyuz Russian spacecraft
CLICK HERE to learn about the NASA DCS460C Digital Camera used on the 2nd and 3rd expeditions at the International Space Station. This one captured the aftermath in New York City on 9/11