As far back as I can remember I have always had a love affair with the space shuttle program, and our nation's manned space program as a whole. I remember watching the old videos of the Apollo launches and thinking to myself, "that is AWESOME". I remember watching John Glenn launch on Discovery and I think that is when I told myself I wanted to cover the space program, to share my passion with the rest of the world, and I don't think I ever looked back.
I moved to Florida just after Christmas in 2007, and I have always told myself "if I ever move to Florida I HAVE to go see a shuttle launch". Before then I never saw a launch myself, only on TV. My first launch was Endeavour's flight on mission STS-123, a night launch March 11th 2008. Even though the shuttle vanished into the cloud deck after 30 seconds it was worth all the years of waiting. Seeing that launch just reinforced my passion for the space program and photography.
Well, as fate would have it, I ended up settling in Orlando, and started photographing every launch from 10 miles away in Titusville, where most of the general public watches the launches from. I was an amateur launch photographer; I must have asked dozens of photographers over several launches hundreds of questions about camera settings, angles, and lens choices. I have yet to meet a launch photographer who's hesitant to share their expertise in this unique subject of photography. The knowledge I gained from their advice over the years has been priceless, and I am forever grateful to everyone who provided their guidance and helped open doors to allow me to get to where I am today, as a professional accredited NASA media photographer.
For many years I photographed the launches from afar in the hopes my hard work and skills would eventually be recognized by NASA & the media, so as to land a gig as a credentialed photographer at Kennedy Space Center. I was later hired as a freelance photojournalist for Examiner.com's Orlando chapter as their Space Shuttle Examiner. Matthew Travis, managing editor of The Spacearium and Executive Director of the ARES Institute, came across my articles, and after we got to talking he offered me a gig as a photographer for his organizations. Needless to say I took advantage of the opportunity and never looked back.
I don't think the general public realizes how much work goes into bringing the space program to life for the rest of the world. A LOT of work goes into covering not only the launches, but all the orbiter's processing milestones leading up to launch. We pull long hours, usually full days 8-12 hours, easily, and during launch week we may be going non-stop for 2-3 days before getting any real sleep. We do what we do because we firmly believe in the space program and want to share our passion with the public, with the world, with all of mankind.
Photographing a space shuttle accelerating from 0 - 17,500 mph in a matter of minutes is not easy, it truly is an art. Rapidly changing lighting conditions, clouds, sun and shade, and the extremely bright glow of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters all add to the challenge of photographing a space shuttle launch. Years of experience, financial investment in camera gear and practice go into capturing the images the world expects to see from us. Spending long hours in the brutal Florida heat, the intense humidity, fighting off relentless swarms of mosquitoes, dealing with nightmare traffic, setting up cameras in the swamps near the launch pad surrounded by alligators and snakes... we go through a lot to capture images showcasing mankind's reach for the stars, and we are very proud of our work.
We photograph from the famous press site, although we are also offered by NASA PAO to shoot from other various locations such as the rooftop of the 500+ foot tall Vehicle Assembly Building, Astronaut Road, and the Banana Creek viewing site (where NASA's invited guests watch from).
The day before launch, usually at sunrise, we go out to the launch pad to set up remote cameras. Being so close at launch is obvious suicide, so we set up cameras on sound triggers and timers to capture up-close images of the shuttle's initial push off the pad. That alone is a lot of work, spending hours in the swamps surrounding the launch pad can be brutal. In order to protect our cameras from the notorious Florida elements we use a variety of different housings, from the very simple to the very complicated. I like to keep it simple and travel light, so I cover my camera with a trash bag (hey it serves it's purpose perfectly), leaving only the lens exposed, and set a timer to countdown to the final minute before the shuttle's engines ignite, and make sure the tripod holding my camera is firmly anchored to the ground with sandbags and/or steel stakes (the ground shakes violently being so close to the pad). Sometimes we get the shots, sometimes we don't, but when we do it's a great feeling of accomplishment and we don't it's a learning experience.
Shooting the launches is only the beginning; we spend hours afterwards editing photos for publication and writing articles for various media outlets. Every launch is different from the last; it is not the same thing over and over. It may seem like that at times but it is not. Each launch is unique - the location, time of day, weather conditions, lens choice and timing - all these elements work together to make each launch image unique. And yes even us media folks have our favorite orbiters; my personal favorite is Endeavour just because she was the first orbiter I watched launch with my own eyes.
It really is true, not just a cliche' - hard work and dedication pay off, in more ways than one. The access we are granted by NASA is remarkable. Standing only feet from these awesome vehicles, being over 200 feet high atop the launch pad, seeing the orbiter's being processed for their next missions, even going on the flight deck of space shuttle Discovery, meeting the engineers and technicians who make our space program possible, meeting the other photographers and journalists who dedicate so much of themselves to covering the space program... Working at Kennedy Space Center truly is a very cool and unique day at the office.
Covering our nation's space program has been one of the greatest privileges of my life, and I look forward to continuing to do so until I can no longer hold a camera. I owe my opportunities with NASA to so many people, and I remember everyday how privileged I am to do what I do. I receive a lot of attention for my work from complete strangers around the world, and it is a great feeling knowing so many people appreciate and look forward to seeing my photographs and sharing in my passion.
It is true our nation's space shuttle program is at an end, but that is by no means the end of manned spaceflight for the United States. We as a nation have so much to look forward to, NASA is in a state of transition and needs the public's support more than ever. And for the first time in history the commercial sector is stepping up and taking spaceflight upon themselves. Whatever happens, I will be there to cover our nation's space program with so many others, people I have come to call not only colleagues but my friends, to bring the space program to life for those who cannot see it for themselves.
As I watched Atlantis thunder off the pad last week from the VIP viewing area, on the final launch of the shuttle program, I thought to myself once again same as I did when I was a kid, "that is AWESOME".
(Article written by: Mike Killian for The Spacearium)