Few subjects will inspire as much awe, wonder, and reverence as space. From the dazzling first photos of the James Webb Space Telescope to reports on every Hubble happening, there’s something about looking out onto the edges of the universe that inspires hope and beauty in the world’s collective imagination. NASA has recently revealed its Photographer of the Year winning images. Though the news may have been eclipsed by the JWST, this behind-the-scenes look at the agency shows some of the people and places making space exploration possible.

In its fourth year, the competition is exclusively for the agency’s photographers, with NASA recognizing four categories: documentation, portrait, people, and places. The winners feature the dramatic, official portrait of astronaut Tom Marshburn, exercises at Johnson Space Center’s Rock Yard, a giant torque, and the Blue Angels.

Documentation: Norah Moran

‘Test subjects Kelsey Young and Tess Caswell evaluate lunar field geology tasks as part of the Exploration Extravehicular Activity (xEVA) night operations development tests conducted at Johnson Space Center’s Rock Yard.’ Norah Moran – NASA – Johnson

When astronauts need to give something a test run, they go to the Rock Yard. Norah Moran won the Documentation category with this photo of Kelsey Young and Tess Caswell evaluating lunar field geology tasks at Johnson Space Center.  

Portrait: Josh Valcarcel

‘Official NASA Portrait of astronaut Tom Marshburn wearing the Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit in Building 8’s Photo Studio at the Johnson Space Center, July 19, 2021.’ NASA/Josh Valcarcel

The winner of the Portrait category was Josh Valcarcel, who took the official portrait of astronaut Tom Marshburn suited up in the Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit at the Johnson Space Center. From the deep shadows and harsh light to the fog of the helmet, many elements lean into the mystery of space. 

People: Denny Henry

‘Engineering Technician Ryan Fischer torques the Force Gauge Ring on to the vibe table in preparation for vibration testing of the PACE spacecraft bus at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland on June 16th, 2021.’ Denny Henry

Denny Henry scooped up the People category trophy with a photograph of Engineering Technician Ryan Fischer. Here, Fischer uses a torque to adjust the Force Gauge Ring in preparation for vibration testing of the PACE spacecraft at the Goddard Space Flight Center. 

Places: Dominic Hart

‘The Blue Angels crew tour the inlet of the NFAC’s 80-by-120-foot wind tunnel test section in building N221.’ Dominic Hart

Dominic Hart took the winning image for Places with this picture of the Blue Angels, the United States Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. Here, the group is shown walking through the inlet of a wind tunnel test section at the National Full-Scale Aerodynamic Complex (NFAC).

A few of our favorites

‘Flagstaff, Arizona – Field Location SUBJECT: Photographic support and coverage of night field evaluation. EVA Test #1.’ Bill Stafford

The yellow glow of the moon and the harsh white lights of the testing site create an otherworldly feel. Is this Earth? Who are they, what are they doing, what do they want?

‘NASA astronaut Jonny Kim wearing a high-altitude pressure suit worn in the WB-57 aircraft, which is capable of flying at altitudes over 60,000 feet.’ Norah Moran

Another heroic astronaut portrait, but with a different angle. Gone is the mystery, but the possibilities remain. 

‘xEMU Antenna testing being performed in the B14 Anechoic Chamber to inspect MLI keep out zones for the antennas. The xEMU Test article is named xGUS, the successor to the EMU Test Article also named GUS (named after Gus Grissom and his iconic silver spacesuit). Image taken from where “horn” is located that sends out radio frequency signals for test.’ Norah Moran

No, this isn’t a new movie set for Wes Anderson, but it very well could be. That is, if Anderson is looking for a giant antenna at the Johnson Space Center. We spy an outer space feature film in his future?