Night Launch

Adventures of a first-time shuttle photographer.

(Ed Darack)

Time was running out. With the space shuttle program ending, veteran writer and photographer Ed Darack knew he’d have to hurry if he wanted to shoot a shuttle launch—especially a nighttime launch.

In February 2010, Darack had the opportunity to photograph space shuttle Endeavour‘s last-scheduled night flight. See the gallery at right to read more about his Space Coast road trip.

“To me,” writes Darack, “the most memorable image of the first shuttle launch after the Challenger disaster is an iconic photograph taken in September 1988 by Roger Ressmeyer (and published as a two-page spread in Time magazine) of a flock of birds taking flight above a marsh as the space shuttle Discovery rises above launch pad 39B. It’s an inspirational image, one that made me realize I should try to photograph a shuttle launch myself.”

Pictured above: A nighttime view of the countdown clock and the distant Pad 39A with Endeavour awaiting launch. —The Editors

The Grand Revealing

(Ed Darack)

In late 2009, I decided to look into the possibility of going to the Kennedy Space Center. The Web site provides detailed information on how to view a shuttle launch from around the Kennedy Space Center region, and included information on the upcoming STS-130 mission.

The quality of the photography—spanning ten years—led me to believe the site's owner, Ben Cooper, was a retired NASA employee who lived in the area. When I finally met him, I discovered Ben was actually a 25-year-old, current NASA photographer who had graduated from Embry-Riddle University in 2008, and is now one of the most highly respected photographers of space vehicles in the world.

Ben encouraged me to apply for a press pass, and said that if I did get credentials, he could help me with "remotes"—cameras positioned around the launch pad that are triggered either sonically or seismically when the shuttle launches. That was an opportunity I didn’t expect.

In this shot, Endeavour is revealed during rollback of the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) of the mobile launcher platform, Pad 39A. The RSS, which pivots open like a giant steel-girdered clam, reveals the shuttle approximately 20 hours before launch.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, Highest Valor (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the downing of Extortion 17, the deadliest helicopter crash in the history of U.S. special operations. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue.

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