I'm sure people who build airplanes have had a chance to fly in the planes they build, and I'm confident that people who build submarines may get a chance to travel in them too. But I am under the impression that the people who build spaceships may never get a chance to actually travel in the vehicle they built.

So has anyone who had a hand in constructing a space vehicle actually had a chance to travel into space in the spaceship they helped build?

-- Edit: Clarification of "helped build"

(Too long? Skip to the boldface at the bottom.)

Forgive my wordiness, but I appreciate that it has turned out to be extremely difficult to answer this question because the term “helped build” is not rigorously defined. Furthermore, space vehicles are very complex beasts, with millions of parts, some of are not unique to space vehicles. The fact is that a team of thousands of people contribute to the mission, and those that earn the title of astronaut along the way may have also contributed in a variety of subtle ways to that team and therefore to the overall mission which includes building the vehicle.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly which kinds of contributions are most in the spirit of “built the vehicle”. I’m sure every contributor will claim that they couldn’t have built it alone, and that every team member’s contributions were important – critical even. I do not want to come across as thinking any less of any individual contributor. A traditional shout out often goes to the person who “sweeps the floors” as being just as critical as everyone else – and I believe this too. We’re all in this together.

“Did you build it?” is indeed a complex question full of nuance and ambiguity. So be clear in your answer what the contribution of the astronaut was. Each person will be their own judge of what is the most compelling contribution. But the yes/no answer to “did the astronaut help” is clearly not going to be the right way to address this question for reasons that have become evident in the comments: the definition of "helped build" can be broadened in most cases to encompass just about any team member including the astronauts themselves.

I absolutely love reading about all the contributions that humanity's space travellers have made to building the vehicles that put them above the Kármán line. Thanks for sharing that here, but allow me to offer a more tightly constrained qualification for an objective answer.

Here’s the litmus test I would apply: If a child saw the astronaut making their contribution to the vehicle, would the child be likely to describe that contribution as “building the spaceship”. The few young people I’ve consulted about this have responded by saying they expect someone who “helped build it” to be seen putting pieces of it together and I think that best guides the spirit of this question.

  • $\begingroup$ Some of Spaceship-1 / Burt Rutan's people may well qualify. At one stage John Carmack was going in that direction. $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon May 7 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ What constitutes "helped build". Manual assembly or helping with the design? I believe the Mercury astronauts insisted the capsule have windows which were added to the design. Does this constitute helping build (design)? $\endgroup$ – Eric Shain May 7 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ @RussellMcMahon SpaceShipOne only exceeded the Karman line twice. The two pilots were Mike Melvill and Brian BInnie. I couldn't find any references to say either actually had a hand in actual construction of the vehicle. $\endgroup$ – Eric Shain May 7 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ Not yet, but Chris Ferguson is the project manager on the Boeing capsule, and is going to be its commander on the first flight. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble May 8 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ Also, former astronaut and national treasure Nicole Stott en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicole_Stott was an engineer in the Orbiter Processing Facility where they worked on the shuttles before she became an astronaut. Not sure if that counts as "building" one but certainly working on one. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble May 8 at 19:30

Yes, Konstantin Feoktistov flew on Voskhod 1 which he had helped build as an member of Korolev's design bureau. Flying a civilian engineer rather than a military pilot was a political decision by Korolev, and the Russian Space Agency heralded the flight as follows

The expedition made Mr Feoktistov the first spacecraft designer to have tested his brainchild under real conditions.

This mission was remarkable for the fact that it involved for the first time three men in space in one spacecraft. Which made for such a crammed capsule that the cosmonauts could not even wear spacesuits. A "courageous" gamble with great danger as evidenced by the fatal depressurizing of Soyuz 11 a few years later.

Notably, Feoktistov was part of the two cosmonaut party that visited the US as guests of NASA in the 1960s. They interacted extensively with their American counterparts, including Gene Cernan who mentioned this episode in his book Last Man on the Moon. Interestingly, in an illustration of common stereotypes Cernan described Feoktistov as a "thin, wimpy engineer" in contrast to the "jolly bear of a man" Georgy Beregovoy who was a fellow military pilot rather than spacecraft engineer.

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There was the astronaut Walter Schirra introducing the usage of Hasselblad cameras for Mercury 8 (MA-8) in October 1962. Those cameras were used also for Gemini and Apollo.


Hasselblad and NASA’s journey together began in 1962 during the Mercury program. Prospective NASA astronaut and photography enthusiast Walter Schirra had his own Hasselblad 500C with a Planar f/2.8, 80mm lens. Knowing the high quality of the Hasselblad camera, Schirra suggested to NASA that they use a Hasselblad to document space since the previous camera model utilised delivered disappointing results. After buying a few 500Cs, a weight-loss program followed including removal of its leather covering, auxiliary shutter, reflex mirror, and viewfinder. A new film magazine was constructed in order to allow for 70 exposures instead of the usual 12. Finally, a matte black outer paint job minimized reflections in the window of the orbiter. The streamlined Hasselblad would find itself in the payload for Mercury 8 (MA-8) in October 1962. The successful, high quality images that Schirra captured across his six orbits of the Earth would spark a new chapter in the history of Hasselblad and a long, close and mutually beneficial cooperation between the American space agency and the Swedish camera manufacturer.

Source: https://www.hasselblad.com/history/hasselblad-in-space/

In the summer of 1962, Walter Schirra — who would soon become America's third man to orbit the Earth — walked into a Houston photo supply shop looking for a camera he could take into space.

He came out with a Hasselblad 500C, a high-end Swedish import that had been recommended to him by photographers from Life and National Geographic.

"He was sort of an amateur photographer," Jennifer Levasseur, a curator in charge of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum's astronaut cameras, says of Schirra. "Somewhere along the line, the decision was made that he could select what camera was flown on his flight."

Schirra's was a much more sophisticated — and pricey — choice than the simple Ansco Autoset that John Glenn bought for \$ 40 at a Cocoa Beach, Florida, drug store. Glenn used it to take pictures from orbit on Friendship 7 in February 1962. The Hasselblad retailed for about \$ 500 and used a much larger negative than Glenn's 35 mm camera. It also sported interchangeable, Carl Zeiss lenses and removable film magazines.

Source: https://www.npr.org/2019/07/13/735314929/the-camera-that-went-to-the-moon-and-changed-how-we-see-it?t=1588961673040

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    $\begingroup$ Has anyone ever flown to space in a camera? This misses the point of the question. $\endgroup$ – Wyck May 8 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Wyck As it's your question I guess ypu must be correct in saying it misses the point of the question. Maybe the question then needs to be clearer. Nobody has ridden to space in a radio, a telemetry system, a recovery system. Nor in a control panel or control electronics or software. If you mean hard shell and seats or whatever then maybe you'll get better answers (or just a No) by focusing on what you think contributes to making a fit for purpose ship. John Glenn may have been unhappy with such a definition :-). $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon May 8 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ @RussellMcMahon, thanks for the constructive feedback. I totally agree. I took a shot at editing my question. Not sure this won't ultimately be partly subjective though. $\endgroup$ – Wyck May 9 at 2:23

This covers a mission affecting action by an astronaut that historically altered what happened on his flight - but it's arguable whether it meets your criteria. John Glenn personally selected and bought a camera and took it back to have it modified to suit the mission needs. So he was hands on involved in the acquisition of a camera involved in the mission and no doubt the modifications made to it were made at his direction.

It has long been reported that for John Glenn's first orbital Mercury flight no photo taking capabilities were provided - an astounding omission if true. I have read that NASA separately provided a Leica camera - but do not know if it was used on the mission or why JG would have purchased the Minolta if another suitable camera was available.

John Glenn "went into town" Ansco Autoset 35mm camera - a rebadged Minolta Hi-matic.
This was "somewhat modified" to suit the mission needs. See photos below.
Some years back I bought an identical camera to the one that JG purchased to add to my camera collection. I think it cost me about $20 - I imagine that the original in the Smithsonian is priceless.

A Smithsonian curator tells the story here.

  • " ... Few cameras on the market in the early 1960s were simple enough to use on Earth to make them easy to use in microgravity. Glenn found this Ansco at a Cocoa Beach drug store where he had stopped after a haircut to grab a few things. The Ansco Autoset (actually a Minolta Hi-Matic, repackaged by the New York-based Ansco Company) had automatic exposure settings, so Glenn would not need to change the f-stops on the camera during an already busy mission plan. To make the camera usable with his bulky astronaut gloves, engineers flipped the camera upside down so they could attach a pistol grip and special buttons to control the shutter and film advance. They even moved the eyepiece to the bottom (now the top) of the camera so Glenn could target the constellation Orion for the spectrographic ultraviolet photography he was to perform.
    In this case, we see how in the early days of NASA, astronauts developed a very personal role in their missions, and also how innovative and creative solutions became for making what we think of as basic tasks easy to do in space. ..."

A Leica camera is also mentioned but the links are broken. It's suggested in the writeup that the Leica was used for the published eary shots - but JG mentions the Ansco in his accounts.

First ever handheld photo taken from space - Atlas Mountains, Africa:

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From here

The camera, on display in the Smithsonian aerospace Museum.

enter image description here

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ It's a stretch to consider the camera "a vehicle", but a nice answer otherwise. $\endgroup$ – Eric Shain May 8 at 16:51

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