Chris Crisman Photographs the New Era of Space Travel for Wired UK

May 3, 2013

By Jacqui Palumbo

© Chris Crisman

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, first began researching how to usher in the era of commercial space travel in 1995.

In Wired UK’s April 2013 cover story “Up,” Adam Higginbotham writes, “Sometimes it almost seems to disappear into the desert. Conceived as a conjuring trick of architecture and topography, the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space rises in a sinuous curve from the harsh New Mexico dust, its steel surfaces weathered into a red-brown mirage on the horizon; at twilight, the silhouette of the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport melts slowly into the ridgeline of the San Andres mountains, 30 kilometres away.” 
This would be the setting for Philadelphia-based photographer Chris Crisman’s latest assignment, resulting in 24 pages of photos, including five two-page spreads, the largest number of photos that Wired UK has ever run for a single story. Within the editorial are intricate industrial images, iconic portraiture, and landscapes that bear resemblance to the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico with long shadows and lines sweeping across the emptiness of the spaceport runway.
The spaceport runway extends nearly two miles into the New Mexico desert.
Crisman and his team spent nearly a week in an unmarked location in the desert of New Mexico, and in Mojave, California at Scaled Composites LLC, where Virgin’s rocket for commercial space travel, SpaceShipTwo has been in production since 2006, and where they would have a mere ten minutes to photograph Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson. Branson has been dreaming of commercial space flight since 1995, when he began exploring the possibility after a conversation with astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The Wired UK article follows Branson’s quest for passenger space travel, with his advances and setbacks over nearly two decades. Now, with SpaceShipTwo finally complete and ready for testing, and 500 passengers who have reserved their seats at $200,000 each, the first flight is currently scheduled to lift off from the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space on January 1st, 2014.
SpaceShipTwo is currently housed in Mojave, California with the Scaled Composites team.
Wired UK has been a client of Crisman’s for about two years, including two prior cover stories. This particular project came about by a kind of kismet; while shooting the last story for Wired UK on scientists of the MIT Media Lab in Boston, Crisman inquired about the possibility of photographing Branson in association with Virgin Galactic. Art Director Andrew Diprose told him they happened to already have a story in the works and that they would consider him.
By November 2012, Crisman and his team were on the road in the desert, meeting their contact from Virgin in the last town before the endless stretch of nowhere, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The Virgin Galactic Gateway only appears vaguely on Google Maps, with no address or GPS coordinates available to reach it. Weeks of back and forth with Virgin had obtained clearance for them and access to the grounds, a space which is unlike any other. Crisman’s Studio Manager, Robert Luessen says, “Exploring the spaceport and surrounding runways, we realized the uniqueness of this location. We’ve photographed lots of places but nothing quite like this.”

In the Wired UK article, Higginbotham explains how the route that the future space tourists will take was “meticulously devised” by the architects of Foster + Partners to foreshadow what they will experience as they leave earth and enter space. He writes that a group of prospective tourists “found the experience so overwhelming they were moved to tears.” Crisman was asked to photograph this area, but certain limitations came with the assignment. “We were only allowed to photograph from the outside of the building,” Crisman explains. “However, we wanted to capture as much as we could and make that content as dynamic as possible.”  He soon found himself laying on the top of his rental car, driving slowly around the spaceport as he captured stills that were later turned into an animated sequence for the digital edition of the magazine.
The home of Virgin Galactic.
In Mojave, California, at Scaled Composites LLC, Crisman shot the next part of the assignment, SpaceShipTwo, the rocket which will be carrying its first passengers in less than a year, and WhiteKnightTwo, the jet-powered cargo aircraft that will carry SpaceShipTwo as it lifts off. Crisman was given unrestricted access to photograph what he wished, but found that “unrestricted” had some restrictions. “When I say unrestricted access, I should explain a certain caveat,” he comments. “While shooting the spaceship we were allowed to photograph any piece and part we wanted, but once we were finished and wrapping our gear, a security rep approached us and very politely asked for our memory cards.” Luessen adds, “I will tell you that there are photos we shot that never made it out of the hanger that day.”
Above: SpaceShipTwo. Below: WhiteKnightTwo.
The final part of the shoot had been planned for months in advance. Ten minutes with Sir Richard Branson to get a cover shot and an opening spread, and a limited amount of time to photograph Virgin CEO George Whitesides and test pilot Dave MacKay. Within the ten minutes, Crisman also had a “clear vision” of an extra shot he wanted to take of Branson. “I knew that if I could make time in the ten minutes to create the portrait I wanted to make then it would have real value for Wired UK beyond what they were expecting,” Crisman explains. 
To execute the shoot smoothly, Crisman and his team tech scouted the location the day before, developed a “loose” plan to execute the images and then arrived four hours prior to the scheduled ten-minute shoot to set up and test the lighting. For the cover, Branson would be front and center with Whitesides and MacKay on either side. Due to the time restrictions, they had to photograph each subject separately and digital artist Taisya Kuzmenko would composite the images together. They planned to use a combination of an 8 x 8-foot scrim and three octabanks so they could shade and light each subject individually. “We wanted to go big,” Crisman says. “A cover shoot of this magnitude deserved it.”
When they arrived on location, they discovered they could not leave the equipment setup on the tarmac due to other activities going on at the same time. Crisman figured out a quick solution, scrapping the setup that involved multiple light sources. Instead, he planned to use one large octabank, functioning as three lights, shifting position from each subject as he shot them individually, careful to keep the lighting ratio the same for each shot. 
When the lighting problem was solved, everything else fell into place. Crisman says, “Once Mr. Branson was delivered to us, we had an incredibly brief greeting. I showed him a series of photo references for the look, feel, expression, and motivation we were targeting, gave him a brief rundown of our game plan, and got down to work.” In ten minutes he took over 200 shots, and was given the go-ahead by Dirprose to create the extra portrait he had wanted. “This was an incredibly important cover feature for the magazine and it felt great to know that the entire staff at Wired had total faith in my approach, decisions, and execution,” Crisman says.
Crisman’s “extra” portrait of Sir Richard Branson.
Crisman’s photographic approach and style are the result of years of refining his process and vision, but the core values in his imagery have never changed. “I always try to make captivating, honest and noble pictures,” he says. The 24 pages of “Up” show just that, from the empty stretch of the runway meeting the horizon of the open sky, to the industrial beauty of the spacecraft that will lead into the next space era, to Sir Richard Branson looking out over the California desert where an idea he concepted nearly two decades ago is nearing its completion. Crisman and his team were grateful to have documented a pivotal moment in history. After the issue was published, Luessen wrote on their blog, “I’ve got my fingers crossed that the next time we’re back this way we’ll be headed Up.”
For more of Chris Crisman’s work, visit his Web site.