Night Launch

Adventures of a first-time shuttle photographer.

launch countdown
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.

Turning Basin

(Ed Darack)

I received media approval from NASA just a week before the planned launch. I still needed to drive myself—and a pile of camera gear, including a Canon 400mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4 lens—from Nevada to Florida. I finished an Air & Space story about my embed with a U.S. Marine Corps Osprey unit in Afghanistan, and within two hours was on the road. I arrived in Titusville, Florida, some 2,700 miles and three days later.

The next day, Friday, February 5, I entered Kennedy Space Center. In this shot, a pelican stands on the pilings at the barge “turning basin” near the Vehicle Assembly Building. In the distance is the launch assembly at Pad 39A.

Camera Set-Up

(Ben Cooper)

I met with Scott Andrews, who probably has more experience photographing shuttle launches than anyone in the world. Scott very kindly loaned me two seismic camera triggers and a Canon 1DMK3 so that I would have two remote cameras to work with. With my tripods, cameras, borrowed seismic triggers, lenses, and thick plastic bags in tow, I boarded a bus bound for Pad 39A. My escort was retired Air Force Colonel Johnny Johnson, former deputy commander of Cape Canaveral’s Patrick Air Force Base. People at KSC told me that Colonel Johnson has witnessed more launches from the area than just about anyone alive.

I asked Colonel Johnson where he thought it best for a first-time photographer to position his camera, and he mentioned the mounds at the periphery of a field to the southeast of the shuttle. Using a heavy Gitzo tripod, I secured the camera assembly with tent stakes and rope. The trash bags not only protect the cameras from rain, but also from the possible cloud of solid rocket booster exhaust and water vapor expected at launch.

Pictured: Ed positions the camera in anticipation of the launch.

Up Close and Personal

(Ed Darack)

I sunk one of Scott’s seismic triggers into the ground and plugged it into the camera. When Ben came over to see if I needed any help, I asked him to jump up and down and, sure enough, the camera shutter started firing. Ben reminded me to put in a large enough flash card; storms were predicted, and would keep the camera shooting for as long as the thunderclaps continued overhead. My 32-gigabyte card could accommodate 1,238 images. I hoped it was enough.

Along with the other photographers, I would have, in theory, one more chance to do a camera check before the launch. I’d be able to swap out camera batteries, and erase all the images triggered by thunder. But the final camera check could easily be cancelled, which is why the cameras and remotes are turned on from the outset.

One of the highlights of the shoot was getting inside the actual perimeter of Pad 39A, allowing detailed, up-close shots of Endeavour, the solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank with the “beanie cap” (gaseous oxygen vent) on top. I thought the closest I would get to the shuttle was six or seven miles; now I was standing within just a few hundred feet of the orbiter, close enough to see the ports for the directional nozzles on the nose, the individual heat tiles, and detail on the solid rocket boosters and external tank.


(Ed Darack)

On Saturday, February 6, I arrived at the media site to a cool, clear sky. Thunderstorms had pounded the area the night before, so I was nervous about what I would find when we headed out to the launch area. A lot of photographs had been shot, eating up a healthy chunk of the flash cards in each of the cameras. I erased the blank images and put new batteries in the cameras and seismic triggers.

With the launch planned for 4:39:50 a.m., Sunday, instead of returning to my hotel 30 minutes away, I opted to sleep in my car. Three miles distant, powerful xenon spotlights illuminating Endeavour at Pad 39A cast a distinct, broad “V” into the sky, each arm of which was capped by the reflection off of low, swirling clouds. Slowly, people began to arrive, and by 3 a.m. a crowd of about 150 journalists waited near the countdown clock in the cold, windy early morning. With just nine minutes to go, the words “no-go” reverberated from a distant loudspeaker, based on bad weather. The launch was scrubbed, to be tried again the next morning.


(Ed Darack)

Like the night before, a number of journalists arrived at the media site within an hour of the planned launch. We passed the 30-minute mark, then the 15, then 5. Once the clock hit T-20 seconds, everyone at the water’s edge became quiet. At T-15, the first of the 300,000 gallons of water of the sound suppression system crashed onto the launch pad below the craft’s engines. Endeavour’s three main engines fired in quick succession at approximately T-6 seconds. I waited for the flash of the solid rocket boosters, at which point the shuttle would be orbit bound. This image, shot within one second of solid rocket booster ignition, is taken from one of my remote cameras. After setting the focus manually, I had taped the focus ring so that the vibrations caused by the launch wouldn’t shake it out of focus.

With a burst of light, Endeavour lumbered into the sky at 4:14:08 EST, quickly accelerating as it roared through a low deck of clouds and began its eastward arc.

Within minutes, the shuttle was just a pinprick of light—albeit a very bright pinprick.

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.

Post Launch

(Ed Darack)

This is my favorite static image from the entire shoot, and one that was entirely unexpected. A few hours after launch, the photographers got word that a bus would be heading out to the remote camera sites so we could pick up our gear. At the first camera setup, on the mound, I found my gear coated in a slurry made of the exhaust of the solid rocket boosters mixed with the water from the sound suppression system. Fortunately, the trash bags protected everything.

While another photographer was retrieving his remote cameras, I saw this scene, and quickly set up a tripod, mounted one of my Canon 1DSMK3s with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM lens, and took the shot. The dawn light behind the launch complex, brilliantly lit with the xenon floodlights, with vapor rising from the pad. I’d never seen a shot like this: the launch pad sans shuttle, but with the telltale signs that Endeavour had just launched, with floodlights pointing to where it now orbited.

Playing Witness

(Ed Darack)

Watching a shuttle launch on television is dramatic, but standing at Kennedy Space Center and watching it lift off before your eyes takes that drama to a new level. Sadly, my visit came at a time when the 30-year-old shuttle program is coming to an end.

The Photographer

(Ben Cooper)

Photographer and writer Ed Darack stands near space shuttle Endeavour before its final planned night launch, February 2010.

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