Best Photos of 2011: Space Shuttle

In the following weeks I will be posting my favorite photos of 2011 in a series of blog posts. I will start out the series by showing my favorite Space Shuttle photos of the year.

The following photos document the final days of an iconic program – America’s Space Shuttle Program. From 1981 – 2011, the Space Shuttle was able to do things most thought would never be possible, including sending up and retrieving satellites, the Hubble Telescope missions, and most notably building the orbiting International Space Station. This did not come without tragedy, however, with the loss of Challenger in 1986 and the more recent loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 which made the powers-that-be realize it was time to move in a different direction with our space program and retire the shuttle. The program would finally come to a close in 2011 with the final launches of Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-133), Endeavour (STS-134) and Atlantis (STS-135). The shuttles now have a new mission and that is to educate the public about space travel. Over the next year or so these amazing pieces of American engineering will be prepped for museum display and shipped off to their respective display sites: Florida will remain home to Atlantis where it will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Discovery will be moved to the Smithsonian’s Udvar Hazy Center in Virginia, and Endeavour will make the long trip to Los Angeles where it will be showcased in the California Science Center. Be sure to check back as I plan to document these moves.

2011 started out with me shooting the final launch of Discovery, this would end up being my last launch shooting as a member of the public and not as media and I would have to say it was the most memorable launch of the five of the last six launches I saw. The launch of STS-133 was originally scheduled for November 2010 but due to several problems it would not end up launching until February of 2011. By the time launch day finally came around the suspense was killing me, it would be an early evening launch and the conditions could not be any better.

Although not really a good photo I still liked it as you can clearly make out the two solid rocket boosters falling away from the shuttle stack. Also seen in the photo is Discovery with its three main engines firing brightly, its wings and the external tank. Due to cloud cover during the final two launches this would end up being the last time I would get to photograph the booster separation. At this moment the shuttle is around 29 miles down range and 146,000 ft. in altitude!

I would head back home to West Virginia for one week of classes, then once again head back to Florida for spring break. Over spring break, Discovery would land at Kennedy Space Center and Space Shuttle Endeavour would rollout to the launch pad – talk about good timing!

For the landing of Discovery, I did not have media credentials so the only way I had a chance of getting decent shots was if the shuttle would land on runway 15, NASA usually prefers runway 33 for landing but the winds would have other plans on this day and I would get lucky again!

The rollout of Endeavour was supposed to occur a few hours after the landing of Discovery but due to some weather moving into the area it would occur the following evening. It was a great evening for a rollout and I was able to get some different shots.

On the evening of March 10, 2011, hundreds of NASA contractors along with their families and friends gathered to watch Space Shuttle Endeavour’s final rollout to the launch pad. After some delays, Endeavour would finally launch on the morning of May 16, 2011.

I would now head home, finish up the semester of classes and head back to Kennedy Space Center. The day my finals ended, I headed back to Kennedy Space Center for the first launch attempt of Endeavour which would be delayed. Click here for a blog post on STS-134.

Here are some favorites from the mission.

The day after the launch of STS-134 I would head back to KSC for the final rollover of Atlantis to the Vehicle Assembly Building where she would be mated to the external tank and solid rocket boosters.

For the lift and mate inside the VAB I had the very rare chance of photographing Atlantis hanging vertical inside the vehicle building and the actual lift.

A Japanese crew films Atlantis inside the Vehicle Assembly Building.

The sling is mated to Atlantis which will allow it to be lifted vertical.

This shot gives a person a great look at the not often seen belly of Atlantis and thermal tiles. The two open doors is where the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen are fed into the main engines via the external tank while in flight, it also acts as an attachment point for the tank. Once reaching orbit and main engine cutoff, the external tank is jettisoned the doors close.

For this view of Atlantis I got my camera as close to the floor as possible to give a unique view looking up at the orbiter and the ceiling of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, 526 ft up.

Atlantis is slowly hoisted into the air by the massive overhead cranes.

Atlantis hangs nearly 300 ft above the floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building before moving over to the high bay, where the external tank and solid rocket boosters wait.

After the lift I would wait around a week to return to KSC to photograph the final rollout of the Space Shuttle Program and Atlantis to the launch pad. Unlike the past rollouts where I photographed from outside the Vehicle Assembly Building, this time I would shoot it from inside.

In this view you see Atlantis shortly before starting the roll out to the launch pad. Launch pad 39A can be seen lit up in the distance.

Space Shuttle Atlantis departs the Vehicle Assembly building for the final time.

A few weeks after rollout another unique opportunity would present itself and I was able to photograph Space Shuttle Atlantis from different levels of the launch pad and service structure.

Looking up at Atlantis from the top of the mobile launch platform.

Atlantis, as viewed from the 195′ level of the launch pad. In the distance you can see the Atlantic ocean. Due to forest fires in the area it was a very hazy day and visibility was low.

Looking down the side of the Orbiter Access Arm, the walkway astronauts take on launch day to board Atlantis.

A look at the flight deck of Space Shuttle Discovery which I had the rare opportunity to tour.

Looking out into the payload bay of Discovery from the airlock.

Space Shuttle Atlantis is bathed in light as it sits on launch Pad-39A shortly after sunset.

Water overflows from the top of the water tower at launch Pad 39A on the evening before the final launch of the Space Shuttle Program. The 290ft tower holds 300,000 gallons of water which was released onto the mobile launch platform seconds before ignition of the shuttle’s three main engines to dampen the strong acoustic waves produced.

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from launch pad 39-A for the final time on July 8, 2011.

The plume of smoke produced by the solid rocket boosters disappear into the clouds.

Space Shuttle Atlantis is seen during her final few seconds of flight as she glides in for landing on runway 15 at Kennedy Space Center. The landing occurred shortly before sunrise at 5:57am on July 21, 2011.

Space Shuttle Atlantis sits on the runway about an hour after landing.


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