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The Road To NASA

The 550 foot deep Barringer Meteor Crater in northern Arizona was created approximately 50,000 years ago. The topographical terrain of Meteor Crater so closely resembles that of the moon, NASA made it an official training site for the Apollo astronauts.

The 550 foot deep Barringer Meteor Crater in northern Arizona was created approximately 50,000 years ago. The topographical terrain of Meteor Crater so closely resembles that of the moon, NASA made it an official training site for the Apollo astronauts.

The road is long and wide, an open valley surrounded by rolling green hills and lush low hanging clouds. It’s virtually silent, save for the steady hum of the car engine and a gentle tapping of a light rain on the windshield. Off in the distance, peculiar forms suddenly emerge from the horizon and slowly begin to take shape on our approach – 27 radio antennas neatly aligned. We’ve arrived at the Very Large Array in central New Mexico, the same unassuming, remote network of telescopes which the late astronomer Carl Sagan describes as “some strange species of mechanical flowers” in his famed novel Contact. Indeed, they stand silent and unified, “straining toward the sky.”

At the very lowest point in what could be considered the most difficult year of my professional life, my dream job showed up in a random Google search. Twenty-four hours later I sent off my application, and within a month I found myself on the road to Houston to work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Leaving our home in San Francisco, my girlfriend and I packed up our lives and set off on a 2000-mile road trip halfway across the country.

Despite the absolute minimum of planning, we seemed to find ourselves in cities that made notable contributions to astronomy and space exploration. Ultimately, what began as a normal road trip to relocate turned out to be something of a cosmic pilgrimage. We visited both the Lowell Observatory and the Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona, as well as the Very Large Array in New Mexico. Every stop and every mile we traveled away from California seemed to further confirm the fact that we had leapt into an entirely new adventure. I found myself standing in some of the very same places Carl Sagan once stood during the filming of the show Cosmos, and I couldn’t help but reflect on my own Personal Voyage and the circumstances that may have helped lead me here.

The Very Large Array (VLA) consists of 27 radio antennas in central New Mexico. Each antenna is 82 feet in diameter, and together they form a powerful telescope with an eye 22 miles across.

Growing up in Florida, NASA had a huge influence on my childhood. I remember waking up to the sound of the space shuttle breaking the sound barrier upon re-entry, and my mind and imagination filling with possibilities. It led me to join the Navy as a Mass Communication Specialist, earn my degree in Visual Journalism from Brooks Institute, and work as a staff photo editor and photographer for WIRED.

It seemed like an impossible dream, but I believe both the real and proverbial road to NASA appeared because I’ve always been willing to follow my own interests and pursue my enthusiasms whole-heartedly. My first few years as a young photographer were spent obsessed with learning good technique and understanding photography as a craft, but the best moment came for me when photography taught me how to love other things – that’s photojournalism – a vehicle of exploration unto itself, a master key capable of opening any door, taking me anywhere I’d want to go, and teaching me anything I’d want to learn.

Deciding what it is we want to shoot is a big question for photographers in all stages of our careers, especially early on. There’s a lot of pressure to specialize in order to stand out among our peers, but this doesn’t have to be the dilemma that many make of it. Rather than ask yourself what you want to shoot, the better question would be: what do you enjoy the most?

Social media such as Instagram and Facebook are great reflections of what we love and how we spend our time. Professional portfolios are no different. Want different photos? Change your lifestyle. Better yet – live the life you want to live and bring a camera. Even when I couldn’t contribute to human space flight directly, I still immersed myself in that world. I absorbed as many sci-fi books, TV shows, and video games as possible. I read everything I could get my hands on and really lived in that internal space, and I wasn’t shy about it. I even spent a month making a space suit costume for the WIRED Halloween costume contest (and won).

The historic Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff AZ is home to a 120-year-old 24-inch refracting telescope. Percival Lowell initially used the telescope to further his legendary theories about intelligent life on Mars, and later generations used it to make a number of other discoveries, including detailed maps of the moon for the Apollo missions.

The historic Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff AZ is home to a 120-year-old 24-inch refracting telescope. Percival Lowell initially used the telescope to further his legendary theories about intelligent life on Mars, and later generations used it to make a number of other discoveries, including detailed maps of the moon for the Apollo missions.

The second thing I’ve done throughout my career is pre-visualize. You've probably heard of this technique before, made popular by the legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams. He claimed that he would imagine, or "see" the image he wanted to create in his mind before he would go out to shoot, and that by doing so, he primed his senses to capture the moment if and when it finally presented itself. In other words, he knew what to look for, and he was prepared. This same concept can apply to all of life.

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.
— Carl Sagan

Science-fiction is well known to serve as a precursor to science fact. Watch any episode of Star Trek and you'll see tablet computers, cell phones, universal translators, and a host of other modern technologies depicted long before Steve Jobs became a household name. Having a clear vision gives us something to work toward and focus on, and increases the chance of it coming to fruition. In my experience, it often feels as if there's a more subtle aspect of nature at work, a connection between our imagination, our thoughts, and our reality, woven together in ways we can’t yet quantify.

One of my early inspirations for the space suit was the image at left from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The following image was shot nearly a full month later on Halloween night. No efforts were made to mirror this scene, it came about naturally. In hindsight, seeing them side-by-side really speaks to the power of pre-visualization in any project. Photos from left: MGM, Heidi Lavelle

One of my early inspirations for the space suit was the image at left from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The following image was shot nearly a full month later on Halloween night. No efforts were made to mirror this scene, it came about naturally. In hindsight, seeing them side-by-side really speaks to the power of pre-visualization in any project. Photos from left: MGM, Heidi Lavelle

At the beginning of this new voyage, I look back at the road that brought me here. Like a distant mountain, I kept the destination in sight without worrying too much about the path I'd take to get there. I sometimes cursed the potholes, but more often I marveled at the view along the way, and if I ever got lost, and there were times when I did, the mountain would always be there, patiently waiting for the moment when I was ready to lift my sights once again.    

When I think of NASA, I see an ideal that represents equality, courage, exploration, and better still – a code of ethics and responsibility. Around the world, NASA has become emblematic of human ingenuity, our boldness, our need and desire to move and to know, and to learn, and to see all there is to see. And by our risk and daring an instant acknowledgment of the inherent mystery and absurd beauty of nature – in all of its profound diversity. The observation of these two concepts has been the center of my moral principle for years. It underpins my creativity, it shapes my perspective, and it guides me time and again, personally and professionally, to brave the darkness in search of light. 

All in all, do whatever it is you love to do, and do it constantly and with love. Embrace failure, have courage, and have fun.

Wish me luck,