Shuttle dream discovery

April 18, 2012

By Gary Cameron

While every photographer for Reuters is expected to cover, and have a knowledge on an array of events, whether they be political, sports, entertainment, or features, there are certain subjects that always hold a personal interest. For me, if it has wheels, wings, and a sense of history, I want to be there.

The arrival of the space shuttle Discovery from Cape Canaveral, Florida to Dulles International Airport in Virginia (where it will be transferred into the Smithsonian Air and Space collection) yesterday took some minor planning locally, mainly with trying to figure out where our best photo positions would be around Washington, D.C. as Discovery did a last fly-over before landing at Dulles.

Elevation would be key, but also, trying to line up the various Washington landmarks with the aircraft in flight. Discovery was riding piggy-back on a NASA 747 jet, which creates quite a large object moving through the skies. Also, flight altitude was listed at 1,500 feet, which is quite low.

Reuters Senior Photographers Kevin Lamarque (on the roof of RFK Stadium in the east) and Larry Downing (at the Iwo Jima Memorial to the west) would handle the Mall aspect which comprises the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol.

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Editor in Charge Jim Bourg and Senior Photographer/Editor Stel Varias would take a look at side positions, attempting to bring in the White House or other recognizable sites.


Freelancer Jonathan Ernst would concentrate on the “people watching” aspect, trying to incorporate those on the ground viewing the aircraft above.

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

I would take the actual landing at Dulles and the arrival on the tarmac at the airport.

While Reuters Senior Photographer Joe Skipper and his crew in Florida would handle the take off and prep work at the Cape.

REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Prior to landing at Dulles, the 747 with the Discovery atop, did a few flyovers to give us a nice look at the aircraft. Those images went out early, and the aircraft returned to the Washington area for the flyovers.

Next, was the actual touchdown of Discovery on the ground. The Smithsonian media personnel did a great job of getting media and VIP’s out to the tarmac in giant people movers used by the airport. We were given FIRM perimeters on where we could shoot from; any variation would put you back on the people mover and escorted off the airport grounds.

I never had the opportunity to photograph a launch of a shuttle into space. I am told by my peers that the rocket liftoff noise alone was worth the long days and early mornings setting up remotes in swamp-like conditions, dodging alligators and mosquitoes the size of aircraft. Joe Skipper and his various crews did amazing work throughout the lifetime of the shuttle program.

The space shuttle era has come to a close in the United States. Yes, there were two devastating tragedies with Challenger in 1986 and Columbia and 2003, but overall, the successful thirty-year program put 135 re-usable space shuttles into one of the greatest space exploration programs in history. It truly was one of the grandest efforts put forth by a United States government program.

Yesterday, having Discovery fly over one last time a mere 1,500 feet above my head, was the thrill of a lifetime. $192 billion (total cost of the 30 year shuttle space program) well-spent I say.

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