How One Photographer Took Incredible Close-Ups Of Space Shuttle Launches

Shuttle launches are audacious displays of smoke, steam and a gigantic man-made vessel being thrust into space. Documenting in-the-moment details can be tricky — the press site for photographers is 5km from the pad itself. That just wasn’t close enough for Dan Winters.

Winters is a photographer whose fascination with shuttle launches began as a kid, at home in southern California, glued to the television to watch Apollo 11 begin its epic journey. His welder father wielded a camera pointed at the screen, ready to snap a pic. At the moment of liftoff the flashbulb popped. When the roll was later developed, that blinding light washed out the action completely, and all that was left was an out of focus shot of the TV. The crushing disappointment at the time transformed into a kind of long-simmering love for the sheer optimism of these spectacular moments.

Decades later, he was given permission to photograph the Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis launches by setting up cameras adjacent to the pad. He needed to design a system to ensure that they could withstand the intense conditions, so he storyboarded out the positioning and timing of each of his lenses and prepped them to weather the start to these incredible journeys.

Below is an excerpt from Last Launch: Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis by Dan Winters. He recently spoke about the series at the Wired x Design conference, and was kind enough to let us share a part of his story here.

Knowing the shuttle’s path as it thunders toward the heavens, I am able to precisely calculate the type of photograph that each camera will yield. Once the frame is set and the focus point checked and double-checked, I wrap tape around the lens to insure that the critical focus setting isn’t shaken loose by the intense vibration generated by eight million pounds of thrust from the shuttle’s engines. A handmade electronic trigger that is sensitive to sound is then attached to the camera. The trigger has a timer that is set to turn both itself and the camera on ten minutes before the shuttle’s launch “window” opens. The launch window usually lasts for only ten minutes. If a problem arises with the shuttle that cannot be remedied during that short time period, the launch is scrubbed and rescheduled to a later date.

Scans of Dan’s hand-drawn storyboards.

The cameras sit atop heavy-duty tripods that are secured to the ground with tie-down straps of the type normally used by truckers to secure their loads. Augers are screwed into the silty soil and the straps are pulled taught. Fifty-pound sandbags are then placed on each tripod leg in an attempt to minimize camera shake created by the intense pressure wave that will hit it upon launch. The cameras are then carefully covered with rain- and moisture-protective plastic to shield them from the almost daily showers that take place at the Cape.

As I drive away, I watch my cameras out the van’s windows — sitting there at the pad area, poised on their tripods. I am somehow envious that the cameras will witness the spectacle from such a place of honour. As the huge main engines are ignited, their deafening sound activates the triggers, and each camera begins firing at a rate of five frames per second. Depending on the composition and lens focal length, I will usually get five or six images of the orbiter as it passes through the frame.

Once the launch is completed and the pad is inspected by NASA personnel for damage and grass fires (which have in the past incinerated cameras), the pad area is then opened to the handful of photographers given the privilege of setting up so very close to the shuttle.

The first launch I photographed was John Glenn’s historic return to space aboard STS-95 (Space Transportation System mission number 95), on October 29, 1998. It can be a sinking feeling approaching each camera after a launch. On this launch, I had placed four cameras around the pad area. I remember jumping from my escort van and sprinting to my first cam- era only to find that the frame counter was still on 1, indicating the sound trigger had failed and the camera had not fired. The other three worked flawlessly. Back then, after shooting film there was still the wait until the film was actually processed — which seemed like an eternity.

The three launches that are represented in this book were captured using state-of-the-art digital cameras, so I was able to view each of the cameras’ images upon retrieval. Technical problems are always a concern when using complicated electronic devices. Triggers fail. Four of my cameras were “smoked out” before Endeavour (STS-134) even left the pad. On Atlantis (STS-135), I somehow neglected to check to make sure there was a card in one of my seven remote cameras, depriving me of a photograph I really felt like I needed for the series.

Rigging the cameras for these launches can be a dirty business. During the summer months the heat and humidity at the Cape, which is literally situated in a swamp, can be unbearable. In all my travels, from the upper Amazon to the jungles of Burma to remote islands in the South Pacific, I have never seen a more mosquito-infested area. Riding out to the site with an escort in an air-conditioned van, I discover that the temperature differential between the van’s cool interior and the scorching sunlight causes the camera optics to fog immediately upon removing them from the van. This renders the lens useless until it heats up to the ambient outdoor temperature. Setting cameras requires crawling around in the mud, as the cameras closest to the pad need to be as low to the ground as possible to minimize camera shake. In addition to the remote cameras set up at the pad, during the launch I operate two cameras manually from the NASA press site.

When I was first told by the NASA media relations officer that the press site was three miles from the launch pad, I was disappointed and thought that at that distance the spectacle would be diminished. On the contrary, the experience is nothing short of profound. The ground shakes. The shuttle is airborne before the sound hits. The rumble from the eight million pounds of thrust is deafening. The light emitted from the solid rocket boosters is so bright it’s like looking into a small sun.

This is hallowed ground.

The launch pad complex 39A and the press site, with its “futuristic” countdown clock, are both relics of the Apollo era. Pad 39A was used by Apollo 11 to begin its journey to the moon in July 1969. Once the Apollo program ended, pad 39A was retrofitted for the shuttle missions with a giant tower called the Rotating Service Structure or “RSS”. It is a massive arrangement of pipes and girders which serves as a cocoon encasing the shuttle so that every square inch of her is accessible to NASA personnel while the spacecraft is readied for flight. Roughly 12 hours before the launch, the RSS rolls back to reveal her contents. This is a sight to behold. I liken it to a beautiful butterfly emerging slowly from its chrysalis.

You can purchase a copy of Last Launch: Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis by Dan Winters here.