There’s a moment in Taschen’s new visual history of NASA, The NASA Archives, where Neil Armstrong describes piloting an experimental X-15 plane to the outer edge of the atmosphere–and realizing he couldn’t get back down. “I rolled over and tried to drop back in, but the aircraft wasn’t going down because there was no air to bite into,” he recalled. “It wasn’t clear at the time I made the turn whether I would be able to get back.”
It’s the kind of hair-raising anecdote millions of Americans grew up on: Daring feats by a group of larger-than-life pilots gave NASA an aura of heroic exploration it still has today (it was depicted in the film First Man just last year). The new Archives are full of these tidbits, but the new book also tells the story of NASA’s influence on the technological era we live in now: Robotic arms. Ergonomics. Human-centered design. Data management and storage. That may sound boring compared to Neil Armstrong stranded 200,000 feet above the Earth, and sure, it is–but this other side of NASA, as a driver of the tech industry on Earth, is also pretty fascinating.
“NASA is one of the world’s largest creators of data,” author and historian Piers Bizony writes early on in the book. “Over 24 million gigabytes of information reside in storage systems (and that figure grows by around 12,000 gigabytes a day). To put this in perspective, all the letters, postcards, birthday and Christmas greetings, insurance documents, tax forms, photos, newspapers, magazines, circulars, and advert fliers that the U.S. Postal Service delivers in an entire year to hundreds of millions of citizens amount to no more than a one-tenth fraction of NASA’s information treasury.”
One image sums up the giant leaps in data processing and computerization perfectly: A photo of the early Mercury Control Center, where NASA tracked manned spaceflights in the early 1960s (and which was painstakingly re-created in Hidden Figures). Dozens of white-shirted engineers sit in front of a large status map–that’s entirely physical, not a digital screen like the ones we’re familiar with. It’s a startlingly low-tech interface, to our eyes, for tracking humans in space. The NASA Archives contains hundreds of these rare early photos, alongside technical diagrams, concept renderings, and dazzling images of space.
The computing systems NASA developed during these years to transmit data to Earth is what made a book like the Archives possible at all (for that matter, it made the internet you’re reading this on possible, too). For Bizony, the technical ability to share images of space–and crucially, of Earth from space–is a major part of its mission. “NASA’s task is to bring such mysteries within reach of human understanding so that everyone can appreciate at least some of the universe’s grandeur,” Bizony writes. “Pictures place a crucial role in this endeavor.”
From that perspective, it’s surprising that a visual history of this kind hasn’t been published until now. After all, the American government gave out printed NASA photographs to visiting dignitaries as recently as the 1970s–some of which now go for thousands of dollars at fine art auctions. The agency wasn’t just a producer of information technology, it was also a producer of important images. And at $150 and 500 pages, that makes the giant Archives seem like kind of a steal.