Space Shuttle Atlantis – A 30 year wait

July 11, 2011

For the second year in a row, I find myself writing about covering an event after a 30 year wait. A year ago I wrote about photographing a match at center court at the Wimbledon tennis championships, 30 years after the start of my career. This time I write about seeing my first shuttle launch, 30 years after Columbia the first shuttle lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center.

It almost feels like yesterday, sitting in the United Press Canada photo office in Toronto in April 1981 watching that first launch. I was a young freelance photographer about to be hired into my first staff job at the news agency when Columbia blasted off on mission STS-1.

I watched the wire photo machine with wide eyes that day as images taken by UPI photographers were transmitted to the world, thinking I hope someday I would have the chance to photograph a launch. Little did I know then it would take me 30 years to the final shuttle launch last Friday to actually see a rocket take off.

Over the past 30 years I could probably come up with 100 reasons for never having had the chance to see a launch. In 2005, my only previous trip to a shuttle launch, I was at Cape Canaveral for the Return to Space flight but as luck would have it, the first attempt was a scrub and I was unable to stay for the actual launch.  The past few months I have been anxiously counting down the time to July 8, the launch date of mission STS-135 and one I could actually stay at the Cape for if the first attempt was a scrub.

I arrived at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday and met up with Joe Skipper, our staff photographer from Miami who has photographed well over 100 space shuttle launches and who coordinates our crew of photographers at the Cape.  I was immediately taken out to the area around the launch pad where we had about 20 remote camera’s set up to photograph the launch. Our remote camera crew of Scott Audette, Pierre Ducharme and Scott Nesius showed me all the locations the cameras were positioned in to photograph the launch.

Between the three of them they had every conceivable angle covered. We had discussed previously the need for photographs we refer to as “for the record” images that clearly show the shuttle lifting off from the pad and others that would be more artistic in nature. These included cameras that shoot through brush, that are positioned near a beach, that showed a stop sign in the foreground and others that reflect the shuttle in water. Like any remote set-up where camera’s are triggered by sound or movement, some will work and some not.

The guys warned me in advance of the mosquito infestation and they were not kidding. Life in the swamps setting up cameras in 90 degree heat and 100 percent humidity means wearing long sleeve shirts and long pants and broiling under the hot sun. They also warned me to watch out for spiders, big ugly spiders called “banana spiders”. They said there is no feeling quite like walking into a web and having one of these things crawling around under your shirt. It took me about a minute of being in the bushes to encounter a banana spider. I photographed the spider and transmitted the picture only to endure the wrath of our photographers wondering why I sent out as clichéd a photograph as there is at a shuttle launch. Trash talk and thick skin is clearly a big part of being at the Cape.

We were welcomed to day two at the Kennedy Space center with rain. Our mood clearly was a bit down as the group of us never thought we would see a launch on Friday. Watching the weather radar we saw a tropical wave had moved over Cape Canaveral which likely meant a scrub would happen. Regardless, NASA moved forward with the rollback of the Rotating Service Structure that covers the shuttle for the weeks it is on the launch pad before blast off. The structure is as big a moving piece of metal that you could ever imagine. It swings open in about 20 minutes moving on a train track like rail exposing the rocket for all to see.

I was the lucky Reuters photographer Joe asked to be one of only 8 photographers who could be on the actual launch pad for the rollback. It is truly an awe inspiring moment when slowly the orbiter is exposed for us to see. Standing about a half a football field away, you immediately are struck by the size of the entire rocket, the shuttle, the large fuel tank and the solid boosters. As it is opening you are photographing as much as you can with three lenses, a fisheye, a 16-35mm zoom and a 70-200mm zoom lens. While I was working, I was also thinking I never imagined being this close to the shuttle the day before it is supposed to launch.  Looking back over my shoulder I saw a large group of people outside the launch pad photographing the rollback thinking just how lucky I was to be this close.

Day three, launch day, started for us with a wake-up call at 330am for the 1126am liftoff. With over one million people expected to watch the launch, those of us going to the launch site on Cape Canaveral needed to beat the traffic in order to make a 530am bus NASA used to take us to the traditional walkout of the astronauts as they leave their quarters headed to the shuttle.

In addition to Scott, Pierre, Steve, Joe and I, we had Michael Berrigan, Molly Riley and Molly Skipper on the base shooting from alternative angles. We also positioned four photographers, Lucas Jackson, Brian Blanco, Hans Deryk and Chip Litherland in places like a beach, Jetty Park and NASA’s Visitor’s Center to combine the shuttle lifting off with spectators watching it.

Once the astronauts were taken to the shuttle we were ready for our final preparations for launch as they were strapped into their seats. There is a final 3 hour period where we coordinate with editor Peter Jones, set up our gear at the press viewing site and just wait for the countdown to hit zero.

I woke up saying I had a good feeling about the rocket going up today while just about everyone rolled their eyes at me. They have been here before; they know all there is to know about scrubs and big gray clouds do not make today ideal for a launch. Basically they were resigning themselves to spending the weekend at the Cape waiting for the weather to clear. We talked about the previous launch and how they took off with a high cloud cover so I just kept thinking this day would be no different. I so wanted it to go, I just didn’t want to sit around for days waiting for this to happen. When you get to launch day adrenaline is pumping and you just want to carry that feeling all the way through a launch. I really didn’t want to deal with the disappointment of a scrub.

It’s a dilemma that runs through your head. Launches are not particularly pretty when there is cloud cover. Everyone loves a sunny, blue sky day to show the shuttle in all its beauty but on the other hand no one likes sitting around for days waiting for the weather to clear. Cloudy days mean seeing the shuttle for only about 20 seconds rather than minutes before it disappears. Personally it didn’t matter to me at all, after 30 years of waiting to see a shuttle blast off; I just wanted it to fly.

An hour before launch I set up a camera on a tripod with a radio receiver positioned to show the rocket and the countdown clock. I moved around the viewing site which is approximately 3 miles from the launch pad, looking for an angle that I would shoot from, placing a group of spectators watching the launch at the bottom of the picture and the shuttle lifting off in front of them. When it would come time to fire the camera I was looking through with a 400mm lens on it, the camera with the radio receiver would fire at the same time.

As I stood there I kept wondering what this was going to be like. All the intensity of liftoff, the fire, the sound and the force of a rocket taking off that I had seen on TV more than 100 times was surely going to be one of the most spectacular events I had ever photographed. I was in a position where I could not see the actual countdown clock but could hear over a speaker mission control talking about the countdown. At 30 seconds the count stopped, “oh well I thought, the weather got the best of us today” then unexpectedly after a short delay, the count restarted as the decision to launch was made.

In a short period of time I saw a puff of smoke and thought, where is the rocket, then ever so slowly the orange tank appeared behind the people in front of me. I was struck by how slowly the rocket lifted up and wondered why I couldn’t hear anything. It seemed like I was working in complete silence.  I saw this enormous vehicle moving but it seemed so quiet. Behind me I heard a spectator shouting to someone, “just wait, the sound is coming” and did it ever. It took about 5 seconds before the roar of the propulsion rockets reached us. As it flew high in the sky you could feel the full intensity of the shuttle. It seemed like the rocket was right on top of us blasting its full power right back at us.

In less than 20 seconds it was gone, never to be launched again. The morning was actually surreal to me. I photographed the astronauts waving to a crowd after appearing from their quarters at 730am only to see them on NASA TV being strapped into their seats minutes later. I saw the rocket lift off only to watch NASA TV and hear audio of them shortly thereafter performing maneuvers long before we were finished transmitting images of the shuttle actually lifting off. The speed by which they got to where they were headed seemed impossibly fast. We had so many more pictures to send to our clients around the world and they were already so far out of the world we were working in.

Clearly the 30 year wait was well worth it. I am already looking forward to the start of the next phase of the U.S. space program and the first launch of the next manned space flight.

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