European astronaut Paolo Nespoli sitting in a Soyuz launch module simulator, illuminated by a single iPhone flashlight. Photo © Alessandro Barteletti.

Photographer Alessandro Barteletti has spent the last year creating a photo essay for National Geographic, in which he tells the story of 60-year-old European astronaut Paolo Nespoli. The project has taken him all over the world with Paolo, but it's the photo above that stuck with him, and that Nat Geo in fact picked for the cover of the July issue of National Geographic Italia.

For this project, Barteletti received access to the training centers in Europe, the US, and Russia, trailing Paolo and capturing photos honoring the astronaut as the first 60-year-old ever to be enrolled in a 6-month-long mission.

Behind the scenes with Barteletti, shooting Paolo Nespoli for National Geographic. Photo © Alessandro Vona

The memorable cover photo was captured in Star City, Russia, while Paolo sat inside the Soyuz launch module simulator.

"I came into the Soyuz with my Nikon D3 and a wide angle lens, ready to shoot Paolo when, suddenly, something unbelievable happened: all lights off, everything was dark and from the outside they started knocking on the door telling me I had only one minute left," Barteletti tells DPReview. "I didn’t know what to do: that was the perfect setting for THE PHOTO, probably one of the best ones ever. Outside I had some led lights but if I had come out the module, they wouldn’t have let me come in once again."

Paolo agreed that leaving the module wasn't an option, and so they tried to come up with some way to capture the shot in the next 60 seconds... with no professional lighting anywhere in sight.

"I had an idea, one of those crazy ideas that only come to you when you are desperate," says Barteletti. "I took my iPhone—the only electronic device I had with me—I turned on the torch, and I put it between two panels behind the astronaut."

As it turns out, his idea worked perfectly. "The module was so small, less than 2 meters of diameter, that the torch was enough to properly light the setting," he told us. "I had only the time for two landscape shots and two portrait ones, just a few seconds before I was literally obliged to leave the module."

In the end, Barteletti was right: it was THE PHOTO. National Geographic chose this shot for the cover. Barteletti still can't quite believe they chose a photo "shot with a ten-year-old Nikon D3 and lit with an iPhone torch."

To learn more about Alessandro or see more of his work, visit his website by clicking here.