The last scheduled night launch of the space shuttle program roused James Vernacotola in the pre-dawn hours of February 8. Vernacotola, who works in the IT field in Jacksonville, Florida, lives a few miles from the Palm Valley Bridge, which crosses the Intracoastal Waterway 115 miles north of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It used to be a two-lane drawbridge until a higher, clear-span, four-lane bridge replaced it in 2002, and improved the view for night launches. “But one thing that I think nobody realized was that that section of the Intracoastal Waterway south of the bridge was pointed toward the Kennedy Space Center, which made it possible to photograph a reflection,” says Vernacotola.
At 4:14 a.m., his lens took in the arc of Endeavour’s ascent on the 32nd shuttle mission, STS-130, to the International Space Station, where the orbiter delivered the Tranquility node. During the 132-second exposure, the stars etched paths westward in the sky, while a waning moon crept in the same direction and gave the appearance of being full. NASA soon posted the image on the Astronomy Picture of the Day page of its Web site, calling it “Waterway to Orbit.” Vernacotola has gotten high praise via Facebook and Twitter, and through his Web site, www.jamesvernacotola.com. “There was something about that photo that really spoke to people in a way I would have never expected,” he says. “Not only was it visually appealing, but it seemed to embody what we can do as a country. It also seemed to have a nostalgic effect, since the manned space program is scheduled to be grounded for some time.”