Monday, March 16, 2009

The Launch of Space Shuttle Discovery

After several delays, Space Shuttle Discovery finally lifted off yesterday to transport the last solar array to the international space station. The launch was orginally scheduled for March 7th, but was delayed twice due to technical problems.Photographing a shuttle launch is something I have wanted to do, and I took this opportunity to make another attempt at it. This was a trickier task than a day launch because in very low light the exposure changes dramatically when the shuttle engines ignite, and even more so when the shuttle clears the launch tower and the entire flame is soon visible. The last time I attempted to photograph a launch was STS-117 in June 2007 and that was a day launch.
The biggest challenge to getting good photos is finding a place to shoot from that is close enough. The perferred viewing spot is the NASA causeway, which is on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center. It sits directly south of the launch pad and offers a view over water from only about 6 to 7 miles away, depending on your position on the causeway since it angles from northwest to southeast. But the problem is getting tickets, which has proven to be very difficult. They are distributed in a lottery of sorts, which is usually only announced an hour or so before it takes place. The price for tickets varies from about about $50 and $100 per person and they must be obtained either by phone, or over the internet. Once the sale starts, typically all tickets are gone in only 2 or 3 minutes. So it takes a bit of luck to get them. Since I was not able to obtain tickets for the causeway, I was forced to shoot from an area off Highway US1, in Titusville. I was on a rooftop of a building that according to Google is about 13 miles from the launch pad. Below is a view from this spot, made at 840mm, using stacked teleconverters. Due to the difficulty in shooting with multiple teleconverters, I removed one of them before shooting the launch, so the launch photos below are shot at 600mm. (Click on any image for a larger view) On this attempt, I was shooting with a 300mm f2.8 lens and 2x teleconverter on my Canon 1D Mark2N camera. It was somewhat windy and my lens was moving around in the wind, which made it even more difficult to get decent photos. From 13 miles away, even on a clear day there is some haze that degrades the image quality. Yesterday was no exception, and from the rooftop where I was shooting, I could not even see the launch pad without either looking through binoculars or through my camera lens. Since I wanted to get some wide shots as well as close-ups of the launch, I had my other camera with a 70-200 f2.8 lens hanging at my side while my main camera with the larger lens was mounted on a tripod. I had planned to use a cable release with the tripod, but due to the wind I abandoned that idea since it made more sense to stabilize the rig with my hands and press the shutter in the normal fashion.

As launch time approached, it was getting darker a lot faster than I had anticipated. With a scheduled launch time of 7:43pm, I thought it would still be light since it was just after sunset. But soon I discovered that if I followed the light meter in the camera, the shutter speed I would get was only around 1/30 second at f5.6. Knowing that it would get very bright as soon as the shuttle lifted off, I decided to start out shooting at 1/60 and f5.6, so I would at least have a chance of getting photos without blurring.
As the countdown on the radio got inside 10 seconds to launch, I got ready but did not notice the first spark until the smoke plume was extending out from the base of the rocket. So I fired my first shot later than I would have wanted. But it seemed like no big deal since I did not really have enough light anyway. I knew that things would be a lot brighter in just a few seconds. I fired several shots as the shuttle moved upward and finally cleared the launch tower, and I continued to shoot as it climbed skyward. The sky turned from blue to gold as the shuttle rose higher. It was very bright - too bright for the settings I had chosen, so I quickly dialed my shutter speed up to 1/200. This was even before the bottom of the rocket flame was visible above the launch tower. I continued to shoot at this setting and as the shuttle rose higher and was about to fly out of the frame, I hurried to remove the quick release plate that was holding my rig to the tripod so I could take some hand-held shots. As the shuttle climbed higher into the dark sky, I had to back down the shutter speed to 1/125 to prevent underexposure. I continued at this setting until the shuttle got very high and small in the sky. As the spacecraft climbs out over the ocean to the east, it appears to be heading downward when viewed from the ground. This always makes an interesting photo, as the color of the smoke trail changes as the shuttle climbs away. The orange, white and pink colors make an interesting contrast against the blue sky. Only about 3 minutes into the flight, the two solid rocket boosers burn out and are separated from the main fuel tank and shuttle. I was happy to see that this was clearly visible even to the naked eye, so I was also able to capture it in a few photos. The rocket engines are still burning as they separate from the spacecraft, and it is interesting to watch as they begin to fall back toward the ocean as the shuttle continues to climb away. In the photo at left, the solid rocket boosters have already separated and can be seen falling away from the shuttle. As the shuttle climbs into the sky, there is a delay in the sound and also the rumble from the engines at the distance I watched it from. So you don't hear it or feel it until the spacecraft is well underway.

After it is all over, there is usually an interesting show of color left behind in the sky from the different colored smoke. The photo below was made at 7:51pm, about 8 minutes after the launch.
Overall I was not happy with the results I got on this attempt. The photos are OK but they are not as sharp as I would have liked, and it's difficult to do much better when shooting from such a great distance. Due to the low light conditions immediately prior to the launch, it was difficult to tell if I was properly focused on the launch pad, and it was also difficult to manually adjust the focus. But the main thing is that even if I had not gotten a single photo, it was still worth traveling to witness such an awesome event.

I highly recommend this experience for anyone who has not yet had an opportunity to witness a launch. There are only a few more shuttle launches left before the program terminates. After that, there will be a lull of several years before the next manned space flights.

For more shuttle launch info, please see my other article here: 
Photographing the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis


  1. Interesting read Tim. Very comprehensive post. Enjoyed the photos! I hope to make the next launch. Blue Skies.

  2. Hi Tim,
    Nice seeing you in the blogging world!
    Well - you got better shots of the launch then I got - pretty cool! Too bad I didn't know that you were up there, too! I was at Viera Wetlands earlier that day!
    Cheers, Klaus