Night Launch

Adventures of a first-time shuttle photographer.

(Ed Darack)

Brilliant Lights

(Ed Darack)

This is the image I drove cross-country to get. It’s actually a combination of two images. A “streak” shot of a night launch is where the camera shutter is left open, and the light of the exhaust flames “streak” across the camera's film plane or digital sensor.

Late Sunday afternoon, I took my camera and tripod out to the edge of the water at the press site and, based on advice from Ben on the height and trajectory of this particular mission, composed a vertically oriented shot with a 24mm lens on my camera. I secured the tripod to the ground with tent stakes, removed my camera, and went to get some sleep.

On Monday morning at 3 a.m., I returned to my tripod and set up my camera and, based on Ben's advice, manually set the aperture to f/22, and placed a polarizing filter on the front of the 24mm lens so as to block all but the brightest light from reaching the camera's sensor (otherwise the scene would be terribly overexposed). I locked up the camera’s mirror at T-10 seconds and then opened the shutter just after all three main engines fired, at T-6 seconds. I really liked the broad “V” pattern of the xenon floodlights emanating from Pad 39A, but knew that with the polarizer and the small aperture, the light would not make it through in sufficient amounts to be noticeable. I made an initial exposure of 4 minutes and 38 seconds with the polarizer and an aperture of f/22. When the shuttle, which was a small, very bright dot, disappeared from my vantage point behind a cloud, I quickly removed the polarizer and opened the aperture to f/6.3 to capture the swirling motion of the clouds and the “V” of the lights. To my surprise, the shuttle re-emerged just after I opened the shutter for the second time. After 2 minutes and 5 seconds, I closed the shutter again, just after the light of the main engines disappeared, almost at the eastern horizon, the entire scene making a brilliant parabolic arc, anchored on one end by the xenon lights once I merged the two images.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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