Florida photographer befriends, documents first all-civilian crew’s preparation for SpaceX launch

SpaceX Crew Dragon set for Sept. 15 launch from Kennedy Space Center

Photographer John Kraus (front) with the Inspiration 4 crew: Shift4 CEO Jared Isaacman (far left), Dr. Sian Proctor (back), Hayley Arceneaux, (bottom middle) and Chris Sembroski. (WKMG 2021)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – As a high schooler on the Space Coast, John Kraus thought he would try photography as a passing hobby. Now he’s tackling something new: Photographing the first all-civilian crew as they prepare to blast off in a SpaceX rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 15.

“I just randomly picked up a camera when I was 15. And I didn’t really think it’d be anything other than a fleeting interest or hobby. And it just slowly snowballed once I shot my first rocket launch into this, you know, obsessive hobby, looking weeks ahead to the next launch and planning my shots,” Kraus, now 21, said. “And I kind of blinked and now I’m doing it professionally full time.”

When Shift4Payment CEO Jared Isaacman launched the Inspiration4 contest on Feb. 1, putting out a call for anyone in the U.S. to win a flight on the Crew Dragon along with him and 29-year-old St. Jude’s physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux, interested space travelers could enter the competition by either donating to St. Jude or using Shift4Shop to share their business stories on social media.

The completed crew includes Chris Sembroski, a graduate from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who works in the aerospace industry in Seattle, and Dr. Sian Proctor, a science communicator, artist and geoscience professor from Phoenix who has completed four simulated space missions on Earth.

Kraus could have been on board after he raised $10,000 for St. Jude’s Children’s hospital in an attempt to score one of the two seats up for grabs but after not being selected, he got the next best thing.

“The mission’s commander, Jared Isaacman, reached out a few weeks later said, ‘Hey, I like your work, would you like to come on board as our photographer?’ and here I am now taking pictures of the astronauts as they prepare to go to space.”

To Kraus, he says he feels like he “99.9% won the competition even though I didn’t win.”

He’s now been documenting their journey training to go to space for the last seven months, which for Kraus was a whole new skill set. He normally photographs the hardware launching people not so much the astronauts on board.

“The overwhelming majority of my work with this campaign is photographing these four people and their team members as they prepare to go to space and the final kind of bit of it is the rocket launch,” Kraus explained. “So learning to photograph people in the way that I’ve been doing has definitely been a challenge.”

Photographer John Kraus on a flight over Montana with the Inspiration 4 crew. (WKMG 2021)

Over the past few months, the crew has hiked Mount Rainer in Washington, flown fighter jets in Montana, taken multiple zero-G flights and been training at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Photographing the crew during fighter jet training in and zero-G proved fun and challenging, said the 21-year-old.

On a parabolic flight out of Las Vegas, Kraus also experienced zero-G and was there to document the Inspiration 4 crew as they did for the first time, too.

“It was the single hardest photoshoot I’ve ever done,” he said. “Trying to focus on four different people who are all moving on their own different planes, as well as, you know, I’m moving because you don’t really have anything to keep you anchored unless you’re like holding on to a wall. And then you got to shoot at a fast shutter speed to make sure you’re freezing them but ... everyone’s moving. It was just such a dynamic environment. And I think I got decent stuff considering that it was the first time I had done that.”

John Kraus (front) and the Inspiration 4 crew on a parabolic flight. (WKMG 2021)

An unexpected benefit of this gig has been getting to know the four people who are preparing to blast off into space. He’s also gotten to know their families.

“I did not expect to build the relationship that I have with the crew, you know, a week or two in I had already built the dynamic with them that I was expecting to maybe build by the launch,” Kraus said. “Just seeing them become such good friends with each other, and then sort of being in there with them. And developing a great rapport with them has been amazing. And better than anything I could have thought going in.”

The Inspiration4 crew members are an electric bunch: A billionaire businessman, a St. Jude’s physician’s assistant, an engineer and a one-time NASA astronaut hopeful turned educator. The thing they all have in common is they are not NASA astronauts, they have not trained for years to go to space but they happened to be at the right place at the right time and on Sept. 15 will launch from Kennedy Space Center in a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket.

“Inspiration4 is the first time that we’ll have an orbital mission to space where all the participants are not from a government agency,” Kraus explained. “All four of these astronauts, Jared Isaacman, Haley Arceneaux, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski, they’re just, you know, more or less everyday people like you and me that are going on this mission.”

John Kraus photographing the Inspiration 4 crew. (WKMG 2021)

The crew will launch and spend three days orbiting the Earth, documenting their experience, conducting some low-gravity science and, according to Kraus, eating some comfort food they bring along.

“When you think about the grand scheme of humans, we’ve only been going to space for, for not too long. But I’ve never befriended a payload. I’ve never become friends with Starlink satellites or GPS satellites. But I’ve become friends with these four people. So it’s definitely personal for me to see them launch,” Kraus said of how he will feel on launch day.

The Inspiration4 campaign will eventually raise more than $200 million for St. Jude. Isaacman donated the first $100 million and the other half is coming from the contest and a Netflix documentary and other fundraising efforts. Kraus sold prints of his photography to raise money for the hospital and Proctor is still fundraising through her space art campaign.

As part of his work with the crew, Kraus has been teaching them some photography skills so they can document their spaceflight.

“The crew came to me and said, ‘How are you going to teach us how to take photos in space?’” Kraus said. “Now, it’s a bit hard because I haven’t yet done it. But I was able to combine a lot of resources from NASA imagery, some of my experience with just various types of photography, compiled into a written guide, a video guide. And once we finally got our cameras on hand, and I split up the kits into their hands, I’ve been helping them learn how to take photos. And I hope they come back with some stunning imagery.”

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft will look a little different than the previous ones to dock at the International Space Station because it will have a cupola on top.

Currently, the launch window for the Inspiration4 mission is expected to be narrowed down to five hours closer to launch day. SpaceX is targeting launch no earlier than 8 p.m. on Sept. 15.

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