Discovery Launches to Begin Her 39th and Final Journey into Orbit

On Thursday, February 24th Space Shuttle Discovery (OV-103) launched into orbit for the 39th and final time of her historic career after nearly four months of delays due to issues with the external tank. Discovery almost did not get off the ground on this day. Only minutes before launch, a a computer for the Air Force Range Safety Officer developed a problem forcing the launch team into a “NO GO”. With only 2 seconds to spare before the launch window closed, the problem was fixed and the crowd erupted in applause as Space Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach declared that Discovery was cleared “GO” for launch!

I was able to view the historic launch from the closest place allowed to launch pad 39-A, at the turn basin, where the external tank barge is brought in. This location is about 3.1 miles from the launch pad. The public is able to buy tickets from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center and various tour operators to view the launch from the NASA Causeway which is just over 6 miles from the launch pad. These tickets are very hard to come by with only two launches remaining however.

A launch countdown sign greets launch viewers as they drive into Kennedy Space Center.

The launch occurred at 4:53:24, a little over an hour before sunset providing great light on the shuttle from the viewing location.

One of the other benefits of the evening launch time is that the heat distortion on the launch pad, which is over three miles away, isn’t  nearly as bad as it would be during the afternoon. I took this image shortly after I arrived at 2:06 in the afternoon. As you can see the pad has a very blurry appearance.

The “Closeout Crew”, the men and women who strap the astronauts into the shuttle, are seen shortly after arriving from the launch pad.

A fire truck stands by in case of grass fires which occasionally happen after a launch.

The closeout crew poses for a photo seconds before launch.

For the launch I shot with three cameras. On one tripod was my primary camera, a Canon 7D and 500mm, this setup allowed me to tightly follow the shuttle from launch until solid rocket booster separation. Connected to the tripod with a magic arm was a Canon 40D and 70-200 which would provide a wide field of view of the launch. The camera would be triggered by my dad with a remote shutter release. I would also use a Canon 30D and 24-105 for a few wide shots of the launch exhaust.

Space Shuttle Discovery clears the tower.

Canon 7D, 500mm, ISO 200, F7, 1/2000

By cropping in on the photo I was able to slightly make out Commander Steve Lindsey in his “pumpkin suit”.

A wider view showing the plume of smoke from the sound suppression water system.

Canon 70-200, ISO 100, f8, 1/640

Space Shuttle Discovery as she begins her roll.

Canon 7D, 500mm, ISO 200, F7, 1/2000

Discovery continues her roll.

Canon 7D, 500mm, ISO 200, F7, 1/2000

Discovery after completing the roll.

Canon 7D, 500mm, ISO 200, F7, 1/2000

Space Shuttle Discovery about 50 seconds into the flight. Note the shadow of the smoke plume casted onto the deep blue sky.

The smoke trail from the solid rocket boosters around 90 seconds after liftoff.

Solid rocket booster separation, 29 miles down range from the Launch Pad 39-A at an altitude of about 146,000 ft.

In this tightly cropped version you can clearly make out the orbiter, external tank and solid rocket boosters falling away.

The crowd looks on at the large plume of smoke created by Discovery as she rocketed into orbits.

The astro-van which carries the astronauts to the launch pad leaves the turn basin after a successful launch.

A security helicopter flys by the massive Vehicle Assembly Building after launch at sunset.

The Vehicle Assembly Building is silhouetted against the sky.

Viewing a shuttle launch is very special and nothing I have found can describe the feeling of being there to witness the sheer power of a launch. The sound, ground shaking and cheers from the crowd are just amazing to witness and I am very lucky to have been able to document some of the final events of the amazing program. Having seen shuttle launches for nearly my whole life it will be very hard to see the last one launch in July. After that, who knows when America will launch another astronaut into space and regain all the knowledge and skill lost from all the laid off workers.

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7 thoughts on “Discovery Launches to Begin Her 39th and Final Journey into Orbit

  1. EXCELLENT WORK. You are such a talented young man and I sincerely hope you continue to do more of the great photography work that you have posted. You make me want to do more with my camera’s. Thank you

  2. Walter, Great pictures, you are very talented with a camera. Thank-you for sharing your pictures with us. We really enjoyed meeting you and your father at Janes. Hope to see you again some day. Patty and Ron

  3. Amazing shots!! Especially like the one with the SRB’s falling away from the orbiter!! I was on the causeway & got a number of shots myself but none as good as these! You were very lucky to have had the vantage point that you did.

  4. I read your post . it was amazing.Your thought process is wonderful.
    The way you tell about things is awesome. They are inspiring and helpful.Thanks for sharing your information and stories.
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