Monday, April 5, 2010

The Launch of Space Shuttle Discovery sts-131

The Challenge of Photographing a Pre-Dawn Launch

Early this morning we drove down to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery.  We arrived at 3am to allow time to board a bus and set up our cameras on the NASA Causeway for the scheduled 6:21 am launch.   The launch was originally set for the afternoon of March 18th but due to cold weather in Florida, the preparations to the launch vehicle could not be completed in time for that date.  Because the shuttle launch has to be synchronized with the orbit of the International Space Station, the launch time gets 25 minutes earlier for each day it is delayed.   That's how we ended up with a pre-dawn launch, which is much more challenging to photograph. 

Today we were fortunate that everything went very smoothly and the weather cooperated very nicely as well.  Discovery lifted off right on schedule at 6:21am.   It was a nice cool morning approximately 60 degrees, which is what I consider perfect weather.  

Below is a chronological sequence of launch photos.  There were over 20 images in this series but I am only showing 5 of them.  The camera settings I used were vastly different for the first few photos, before the shuttle cleared the launch tower.  Once it cleared the tower and the huge flame from the solid rocket boosters became visible, I had to raise the shutter speed from 1/100 second to 1/640 second to prevent the photos from being completely washed out.  Since I knew the smoke plume would billow out toward us and momentarily block our view of the shuttle after the solid rocket booster ignition, I used this 1 to 1.5 second interval to adjust my shutter speed.   I was ready when the shuttle emerged from behind the smoke and I had the right settings thanks to a good friend from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Montgomery, Alabama who advised me early this morning.  Thanks, Joby!
[ click any photo to enlarge ]

Ignition of Discovery's 3 main engines.

Flaming up

Firing Solid Rocket Boosters (here comes the smoke plume)

Discovery emerges from behind the smoke plume.

The photo below shows the International Space Station as it flew overhead 17 minutes before the shuttle launch.   I snapped a few photos as it passed between us and the moon, getting both in the frame. 

[click photo to enlarge]

Finally, here's one that Cindy snapped right before the launch.  Since we were in total darkness, I  look like deer in someone's  headlights from the camera flash.

Additional images can be seen HERE.



  1. Tim, fantastic photos of the launch. I watched it from my home but didn't get the close-up view that you did. Great work. I enjoy photography as a hobby, but I'm still learning quite a bit. I was inspired by your photos to improve my skills.

  2. Hi Tim,
    Wow this is probably a real experience to see this launch, and you got very nice and impressive pictures. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Tim,
    Had the same privilege in March of 2009. Sad to see the Program end. Loved your shots. I hope I can make it back one more time.

  4. You surely had to mortgage your house to get that lens. LOL

    I do love the shots you got with it. Wow. Those are impressive.

  5. Tim,
    Thanks for sharing these great images. I plan to get down there this year to do this. Too bad they're ending the program. Great shots.

  6. Super shooting Tim. That must be some experience to see with your own eyes.

  7. Tim, great photos, I am glad someone got to see it. My family has tried to see a shuttle or rocket go up three years in a row now and like this years it gets cancelled. It may take retirement before I actually see some kind of a launch.

    Again it was nice meeting you at Viera last month. We make the trip once a year for just over a week. I try to do as much birding as possible without upsetting my wife. Maybe next February we will run into each other again.

  8. Superb images of the launch. Awesome Tim...Thomas

  9. Hi Tim,

    A great series of photographs, very dramatic and I like how you controlled the exposure correctly in this difficult situation.

  10. Tim,

    Great photos of the initial liftoff. We too were on the NASA Causeway for this launch. What amazed us was that with the liftoff into the sunrise to the east, the exhaust plume of just the main engines (not the solid rocket plume) was still clearly visible in sky even hundreds of miles downrange (most of the way to main engine cutoff). Did you manage to get any photos that?