Did you know that one of the first digital SLRs was actually used by NASA back in 1991? Neither did we. It was in fact the very first camera that qualifies to be called a DSLR. However, back then, that meant something entirely different from what it means now. In 1991, Kodak retrofitted a Nikon F3 SLR body (yes, one of those old-school cameras that ran on this ‘film’ stuff) with a digital back that contained a tiny CCD sensor. In order to get the image information out of the camera, you needed a separate processing and storage unit that you’d carry over your shoulder.
Considering that back in 1991 computers were still using floppy disks and hard drives could barely store a gigabyte of data, building a fully functional digital SLR was quite a feat. Even more of a feat was the fact that this first DSLR actually travelled to space! In the video below, we get a full explanation of how the Hawkeye II (that’s the name of this hybrid monster) works–for example, that it used an RS-232 port to transfer the image signal from the sensor unit to the processing unit.
(For those who didn’t use computers back then: the RS-232 port, also called ‘serial port’ was one of the most common means to attach peripherals to an IBM PC or compatible computer.)
So, why would NASA opt for a technology that was basically new and unproven, when film had such a long history and was such a reliable medium? Easy: the electronic images taken with the Hawkeye II could be reviewed instantly, whereas in order to get the film that was shot on a space mission processed, NASA would’ve had to wait until the film comes back to earth. Of course, they did exactly that before the invention of a CCD-equipped DSLR, but why not use the new technology if it makes your job easier!
By the way, the camera shown in the video is the precursor to what later became the Kodak DCS system, which was basically the first consumer DSLR system. The DCS-100, which was very similar to the Hawkeye II used by NASA in 1991, would set you back around $20,000 in early 1990ies money. For that, you would get not only a huge SLR that sported a rather small and low-resolution sensor, you’d also have to lug the external unit around with you.
Not everything was better in the old days.
Via Nikon Rumors