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Shuttle photography with the pros

01 June, 2011 | My Nikon Life | Comments


Last week, the world witnessed the launch of the STS-134 Space Shuttle Endeavour. The 14-day mission will see a crew of six astronauts deliver parts and perform repairs to the International Space Station and will be the penultimate flight in NASA’s space shuttle program. It was a fascinating event, but what many readers may not know is that Nikon has a long affinity with shuttle launches at the Kennedy Space Centre. Nikon Professional Services (NPS) has provided support for every launch since the very first one, Space Shuttle Columbia, over 30 years ago. We’re a pioneer when it comes to placing, and assisting others in placing, cameras near the launch pad, and are privileged to be the only non-press outfit that has a permanent building at the Complex 39 Press Mound.

Shooting shuttle launches is, as you can imagine, very tricky. The closest handheld positions are over three miles from the pad and even with a long lens the images suffer from Florida’s atmospheric haze. Therefore, ability, knowledge and technical expertise in placing remote cameras near the pad is crucial to capturing these historic images.

We caught up with the NPS crew to see what our photographers went through prior to the final countdown of the STS-134 earlier last week, and now we wanted give you an insight into the complex art of photographing space shuttles.

2 days before launch (T-48 hours) – The photographers surveyed the areas around the Launch Pad and picked the spots where they planned to position their remote cameras. These survey trips are simply to ‘stake out’ sites and leave a marker or a tripod to let others know that the spot is taken. After the survey run, the photographers will then prep all the remote equipment that will go out the next day.


Image © Ron Taniwaki/NPS

Nikon’s Ron Taniwaki placing remote cameras inside the Pad perimeter for the STS-134 Launch. Inside the pad, clearance is only given to agencies and others that have lots of remote experience or have a unique proposal that NASA signs off on.


Image © William Pekala

NPS General Manager Bill Pekala setting out remotes for image of the launch across a small bay. The cameras will sit there for over 24hours waiting for the actual launch. With the unpredictable weather in Florida, it’s always necessary to cover the remotes in case of late afternoon rainshowers.


Image © William Pekala

24 hours before launch (T- 24 hours) – The photographers had a 6am start to get the remotes out on time. There is usually a three to five hour window to actually place the remotes. All work must be done by a certain time and the range is closed until after the launch to everyone other than NASA personnel.


Image © William Pekala/NPSSTS-122 Before RSS rollback Shuttle launched 7th Feb 2008
Image © William Pekala/NPSSTS-122
After Rollback


Image © Ron Taniwaki/NPS

STS-134 launch photo

Day of the launch – The STS-134 crew was awakened at midnight to have breakfast and suit up for the launch. As it was scheduled for 08:56:26, it meant they had to arrive at the press transportation line at 4am. The ‘walk out’ photo opportunity of the STS-134 astronauts took place about 5:00am and they were transported to the pad at around 05:41 am for strap into the shuttle. This was the last chance for photographers to get photos of the crew.

Launch – And lift-off….even with remote cameras in place almost all photographers still shoot from the press site just to cover themselves in case the remotes don’t fire on time or at all.

Photo from the press complex 39 – this is the closest manned site allowed for coverage. This shot is with a 600mm lens.


Image © Mark Suban/NPS

Photo from the press complex 39 – this is the closest manned site allowed for coverage. This shot is with a 600mm lens.

After the launch – (T+2-6 hours) – The wait begins… No one is allowed to retrieve their remotes until the pad safety crew checks for toxic fumes and makes sure the pad and the surrounding area is safe. The length of time depends a lot on which way the wind was blowing at the time of launch. For STS-134 the wait was about four hours since the wind was blowing toward the area that most people had placed their remotes.


Image © 2007 William Pekala


Image © William Pekala


Image © William Pekala


Image © William Pekala

A D3 with the special NASA designed blimp that protects the camera from the harsh temperature changes the camera must endure during space walks. The D3 is the only camera presently certified by NASA for EVA work.

The astronauts have been in space for over a week now, during which time two of them, Drew Feustel and Mike Fincke qualified for the sixth-longest spacewalk in US history – eight hours and seven minutes! The crew also received a phone call from Pope Benedict XVI, imparting a papal blessing. We wish the entire team, the best of luck and look forward to their safe return.


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