Final Shuttle Launch Brings Excitement and Sadness to the Space Coast

The past few months have been nonstop, traveling and shooting the end of the space shuttle program and some other trips I will blog about shortly. I recently finished up nearly three months of covering the final space shuttle mission of Alantis and have lots to share about the experience. Having been credentialed for STS-134 with Endeavour in May I learned a wealth of information about the ins and outs of KSC and on setting up sound triggered remote cameras around the launch pad. 

Launch week started on the Fourth of July with the crew arriving at Kennedy Space Center from Johnson Space Center. After arrival day I had one day to rest and it was needed as it was nonstop from there until launch.

For STS-134 I set up three remote cameras.  Two failed, one of which was user error. For the final mission, I wanted to go all out with remote cameras and with the information I had learned from the previous mission, I felt much better about the set up this time. I had originally planned to set up five cameras around the pad, but I ended up setting out only three after having one trigger fail the night before launch, and another which wasn’t working correctly.

Two days before launch I woke up at 3:40am in order to make it to the press site by 6am to begin setting up remote cameras. Unlike other missions where most photographers are allowed only one day to set up cameras, for this launch we were allowed two days and it was needed with the amount of media setting up cameras around the pad. I was out in the muggy Florida swamps from sunrise to sunset setting up cameras while I waited, waited, and waited some more to get out into the pad to set up more cameras. Shortly after setting up my third camera for the day I was treated with this great sunset behind launch pad 39-A.

The next day I would once again arrive early at the press site to set up two more cameras. We were treated with rain for most of the day which made it miserable and started to make me worry that I would not be able to make it back to the pad to set out my other cameras. With only a couple hours to spare before sunset, the lightning warning was lifted and I was luckily able to get a ride out to the pad with an escort to set up my final camera. With what seemed like a million mosquitoes swarming around me and it raining, it was miserable trying to check my cameras I had set up the day before and trying to get one or two more cameras set up. I ended up noticing my 10-22 lens had water inside the lens and I ended up having to switch the lens out. With only minutes to spare before the pad perimeter was cleared of all non-essential personnel I was able to get my final camera set up with a sound trigger I had built. It was pretty awesome know I was only of the last to be inside the pad fence with a space shuttle before launch.

Being at the launch pad with the shuttle bathed in xenon lights is something that is hard to describe, the scene is almost surreal and it is nearly impossible to capture the beauty in photographs. Knowing that the shuttle is only hours away from making its final flight really made me think of all the amazing people who made this program.

In this image you can see that the water tower (at right) for the sound suppression water tower is at full capacity which made for a unique image.

After taking a few final shots I headed back to the press site and headed home for the night. It wasn’t looking very good for launch the next day and honestly I was hoping that the launch would be scrubbed so I could put the camera back out that I had pulled.

Around an hour before launch the weather began to clear up just enough and it was looking like we would definitely launch. I was kind of ticked as I REALLY wanted to recheck my cameras out at the pad. This was my final chance to get remote shots of a space shuttle launch and I was nervous as hell that they were all going to fail. With around 30 seconds before launch the countdown was halted for a slight problem at the pad and I began to believe that I got my wish and the launch would be scrubbed as it is usually a miracle for a launch to go on after having a hold that late into the countdown. After a couple minutes they cleared the problem and the “GO” was given for launch.

During the launch, I shot from the press site with my 24-105 and a 500mm on another camera for a closeup shot. Right beside my 500mm was a Puerto Rican news crew who I talked to a few minutes before launch making sure the female reporter would stay out of my shot. Well apparently “yes, no problem” means “no, I will be in your way” in Spanish and she walked into my frame just as Atlantis lifted off the pad. With the uncertainty of my remote cameras firing at the pad which would have left me without any closeup shots, I was pretty upset and wondered what else could go wrong that day.

After the launch, I headed to a friend’s house for a couple hours while waiting to be cleared to head back out to the pad. Once I received word that I would be able to head out, I almost didn’t want to go…I was so nervous! After arriving at the pad and checking my first camera, I was welcomed with the photo below. This was with the sound trigger I had made myself so I felt much better!  After jumping around and yelling like a lunatic for  a few minutes, I packed up my camera and headed to my next remote.

A cropped in view of the original image.

After arriving at my second remote camera I turned on the LCD screen which provided some more jumping around and yelling with excitement…

Another view from the same camera.

After having two cameras successfully fire I headed out to my third and final remote which was located in an area known as “the dike” where I was greeted with more stunning images. Having poured countless hours and dollars into these cameras, it was so awesome to have all three go off successfully and I couldn’t care less now that the reporter walked into my shot at the press site. Some friends of mine had none of their cameras fire which I really hated to see.

A few days after launch, the excitement would be dampened as I headed over to KSC to see a poor-looking Discovery as she was taken out of her processing hangar for storage in the Vehicle Assembly Building to make room for Atlantis upon return. Space shuttle Discovery completed her final mission in early March 2011 and is in the middle of decommissioning as she is prepared for display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar Hazy Center located at Chantilly, VA. The photo opportunity did provide a unique look at an orbiter without any engines.

Atlantis would land for the final time shortly before sunrise on July 22. I was lucky to be able to get to the end of the runway where the lights are which allowed me to get some pretty sweet shots of Atlantis gliding in.

Below is a great video by Matthew Travis who was nearby when Atlantis was gliding in. Since the shuttle is powerless coming in, most people think that it would be silent, but that is definitely not the case as the air moves over the not-so-smooth thermal protection system. In the video you will first hear the double sonic booms and them Atlantis making its fast approach.

Shortly after landing I was given the rare opportunity to go out onto the runway to get some images of Atlantis being safed before being taken back to the hangar.

After being up for over 24 hours I headed back to the air conditioned press room and photographed the crew press conference and reflected on the past two years of shooting the space shuttle from up close. I ended up being able to photograph five of the final six missions. Having watched the shuttles take flight for pretty much my entire life, it was quite sad to see the end of such a magnificent American icon. Over the next couple of years I will continue to follow Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour as they are prepped and shipped out to their final resting places in museums, but it will never be the same…

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