At NASA, student photographs astronauts, zero-G flights — and sneaks a few selfies

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Allison Bills, a photography major in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, is spending her summer interning with the photography staff at NASA in Houston.

Bills, from Luray, Virginia, is working as a “photographer in imagery acquisition,” shooting assignments such as portraits of astronauts in their space suits and NASA personnel training in zero-gravity flight.

“The experience has been overwhelming to say the least,” Bills said. “There is no one day that imitates the last and I am always kept on my toes with assignments. The people here are so friendly, allowing me to truly photograph what needs to be photographed without feeling like I’m imposing on their workspaces. I’ve gotten a taste of every single job title one can have at NASA by visiting and photographing engineers, education leaders, astronauts, pilots, robotics specialists and even other interns.”

"In the Neutral Buoyancy Lab there is a pool as big as a football field, and about 50 feet deep. In it is a replica of the International Space Station that astronauts will train in. This replicates (almost) the feeling of no gravity."

The job has given her a new understanding of photography, in all of its technicalities, she said. And it has provided her with a chance to work with a variety of specialized equipment, including 3-D rotary orbit cameras, high-speed cameras, and “some of the nicest lenses in the game.”

“I’ve been working with photo equipment that most photographers only dream of,” she said. “Some of these cameras are too expensive for me to even comfortably hold, let alone roll around on the ground and shoot with!”

Plus, she said, the internship is teaching her about how to work under pressure and with prominent people — as well as “about 15 cheesy space puns to keep group photos genuine.”

“But the most important thing I’ve learned is to just keep shooting,” she said. “Even when you think you have a great couple of images, the best is yet to come if you keep shooting.”

As part of one of her assignments, Bills had the opportunity to shoot photos on a zero-gravity flight — an environment that can pose particular challenges for photographers.

“Contrary to instinctual impulses, flailing your legs around gets you nowhere if there’s no gravity. You kind of just aimlessly float and it is so bizarre,” she said. “One of the other photographers, Lauren, came on the flight with me and took those photos of me heroically conquering the parabolas. While I look collected, in all honesty I could not stop laughing.”

"Here's another photograph from zero-G! I started off on the ground of the plane and then just floated up to the top."

“We were documenting a team of engineers who were also on the flight experimenting with the effects of gravity on eyesight,” she said. “For the first couple parabolas, I was sitting in the back of the plane spitting out water and sneaking selfies, but near the end of it I was a full-blown Olympic gymnast/ninja. There is no exaggeration when I say it was the most fun I have ever had.”

"Doing somersaults in the air during the zero gravity flight was so surreal because you have no concept of up or down."


Feature image at top: Allison Bills shows off her VCU T-shirt while floating in a zero gravity flight.


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Bills poses with a space suit helmet.
Bills poses with a space suit helmet.
"I shot official portraits of Astronaut Reid Wiseman in his EMU spacesuit in our studio. Believe it or not, the glasses were his idea."
"In Ellington field, pilots and engineers are always working on different aircrafts. I was allowed to get up close and personal while photographing some of these T3s."