Photographers' Blog

A torch in space

Zhezkazgan, central Kazakhstan

By Shamil Zhumatov

PART ONE: LAUNCH

During more than a decade of covering Russia’s space exploration program, I have seen pretty unusual missions. I have taken pictures of an investor heading for the International Space Station, as well as those of a clown and programmers flying into orbit. But the most recent space launch and landing have probably become the most unforgettable – the torch of the forthcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s Sochi reached space and then returned to Earth. Now, as I play back this hectic flurry of events, it is still hard to believe how closely these two things are entwined – the Olympics and space. The Olympic Games had been aimed by the authorities to strengthen Russia’s image. Given this ambitious task set by Moscow, Russia’s space program – a symbol of national pride, albeit marred by several botched unmanned launches – simply couldn’t stand aloof. Space was doomed to become part of this bright political show.

A few months earlier, when I learnt about the future mission of the torch, the only question that haunted my friends was – how will it burn in space? Their avid interest was heated by the torch itself, whose flame had gone out several times since the Olympic relay across Russia began last month. One of my colleagues even joked that while in space the torch would need “a man with a lighter”, recalling the image of a resourceful plainclothes security agent who saved the day, reigniting the torch with a cigarette lighter when the flame went out right at the start of the relay in the Kremlin on October 6. But as the launch date of November 7 drew nearer, there was a general sigh of relief – the torch would not be lit aboard the space station for safety reasons, and it simply would not be able to burn in outer space due to the laws of nature.

The show began on November 5 at 0700 sharp. The gates of a giant hangar at Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan opened, and at the sound of a whistle a locomotive slowly rolled out a Soyuz rocket, whose normally white-and-grey body was now decorated with Sochi Olympics trademark snowflake patterns. A quick glance at a large number of armed policemen, their armor and helicopters hovering overhead left no one in doubt that the upcoming launch was of paramount importance to Moscow.

Nowadays Russia’s space program is no longer in the limelight as was the case during the heyday of its glory, but there was an unusually large number of journalists at that pre-flight news conference. The torch, placed on a smaller table between the main and backup crews, was in dissonance with the routine picture and created an impression of a third person being present. U.S. astronaut Rick Mastracchio often looked at it during the news conference.

Photographic equipment plays a crucial role in covering space launches at Baikonur. I use the entire arsenal at my disposal – three cameras, the same number of tripods and a monopod, an array of lenses and a myriad of minor contraptions, including a miniature ladder and bags for gravel to support tripods of remotes cameras. Unfortunately, Russia’s space gate lacks broadband connection which would allow us to send pictures straight from the launch-pad. So, I had to add a Bgan satellite modem on top of the above-mentioned equipment, and my personal “Olympic relay” turned into a weightlifting exercise.

Closing the chapter on the space shuttle

Cape Canaveral, Florida

By Joe Skipper

The decades-long assignment started with covering the first space shuttle launch, Columbia, on April 12, 1981. A recent visit to Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A wrapped up the story for me. Often we cover assignments not knowing how long it will take, and my part in coverage of NASA’s space shuttle program seemed as if it would last forever. With the landing of the shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011, however, we thought the assignment was over.

But it wasn’t complete yet. With the shuttles headed for public display, the assignment continued a bit longer in order to cover the preparation and their ultimate departure from the space center.

Longtime members of our Reuters shuttle photo team, Pierre DuCharme and Scott Audette, joined me for a final look at the historic pad before it would be demolished to be reconfigured for the next U.S. manned spaceflight program. We were hosted by NASA Photo Editor Ken Thornsley and our longtime NASA media escort and friend, Charlie Parker, a retired NASA engineer.

Mars in the desert

Outside Hanksville, Utah

By Jim Urquhart

I may be a Red Shirt but I made it to Mars.

According to Urban Dictionary (the finest source of American literature), a Red Shirt is defined as; A character in a science fiction or adventure story whose sole dramatic purpose is to get killed by the story’s villain and/or itinerant monster. Taken from the propensity of security officers on the original Star Trek series (who typically wore red uniform tops) to be killed in the episodes’ pre-opening-credits teasers.

GALLERY: LIFE ON MARS

When I was young I wanted to be an astronaut but I never had the discipline to follow through. At one point I wanted to be a scientist but I barely made it out of high school and later dropped out of college but not until after I learned a little chemistry for recreational use in my younger days.

Even with my Red Shirts I have always been wanted to be around people that put their minds and bodies to the test. I even married a woman that has three Master’s degrees and is working on her Ph. D. I have always prided myself in consuming as much science news as possible. To me, the mind and the search for tangible knowledge is the fuel for dreams and will lead you to adventures in life.

That black dot called Venus

By David Gray

The alarm woke me at 6am so that I could catch the sun as it rose slowly above the buildings to the east. But this was no ordinary sunrise. This was the morning when the sun had a black dot slowly moving across it, and that black dot was the planet Venus.

SLIDESHOW: VENUS JOURNEYS ACROSS THE SUN

Photographing the ‘Transit of Venus’ as it is known, was something that I was not at all familiar with. For a start, the total time would be around 6 hours. This was extremely slow in comparison to the eclipses I had previously photographed, with ‘totality’ (when the moon completely covers the sun) lasting on each occasion just 11 and 90 seconds. These celestial events, of course, involved the sun and the moon, but this one amazingly would involve a planet. The difficulty of this was that the sun would remain at its normal brightness the entire time.

So, I figured this could be dealt with in two ways. As the transit began in Beijing at sunrise, it would be possible to photograph it just as it appeared above the horizon due mainly, believe it or not, to the pollution that blankets Beijing on any normal day. This would reduce the brightness of the sun enough to allow direct viewing and thus making a photograph possible without the need for any filters. So I awoke at 6am, walked onto my balcony, and to my surprise, could not even see the sun. The haze was so thick in the morning, that the sun was totally obscured. So I waited. 6.30am came and still nothing. 7am rolled on with the sky completely lit up but still with no sun visible. Then at 7.30am, I could just make out a small circle of red peeking through the grey. I grabbed my 400mm lens, added a 1.4x converter, and took some frames. At first I didn’t see anything, but when I magnified the image on the back of my camera, there it was, a black dot that was very obviously not the same as the 3 sun spots also visible.

Behind the scenes of a rocket launch

By Benoit Tessier

France has a launch pad 7,000 km away from Paris in French Guyana, an overseas region located on the northern Atlantic coast of South America.

For the first time in spatial history, two satellites from the Galileo navigation system program are going to be sent to space using the mythical Soyuz rocket which, during previous launches, sent the first satellite (Sputnik) and the first man (Yuri Garagarin) into space. The event is historic and shows the progress made in space exploration since the end of the cold war. The launch was delayed by three years from its original launch date and I was at last going to be the lucky one to cover the launch, designated “VS01”.

The only problem was that I had never set foot in French Guyana nor previously photographed a rocket launch!

Baikonur: A fusion of time and tradition

The first time I saw the Soyuz rocket, I could not believe that this “construction” could take people into space. Even ten years later, after covering many launches, it still surprises me the level of determination with which people wanted to go into space that led to the building of a huge complex called the Baikonur cosmodrome.

Every visit I am overcome with mixed feelings. On one hand, even 50 years after the first manned space flight, space remains a sphere of high technology and garners special attention. But the storm of the Soviet Union’s collapse left its indelible mark on the map of the spaceport. Abandoned and rusting construction, giant structures and mechanisms are silent witnesses of the space complex’s era of glory. Nostalgia resonates in every story about the history of Baikonur. Space exploration has never been a simple technological development. Everyone who served personally conquered space and the service is overgrown with tradition cherished to this day. There is no policy or ideology in it. It is rather a particular style of the Soviet, now Russian, cosmonautics. Simple and quick solutions were chosen in the race for supremacy in space. Sometimes it seems to me that there is no nanotechnology that can force these cherished orthodox methods to be abandoned.

Only here is the giant rocket assembly hangar with precious technology cleaned with the help of a simple handmade swab; exciting a creative impulse in approaching photographers.