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Chasing Dreams

August 12th, 2011

What happens when you let your passion drive you to the other side of the world? Uri_ba has done just that. This is the story of a shuttle nut traveling 10,000 km (6,500 miles) for hope of catching a glimpse…

STS-131 Mission patch

STS-131 Mission patch

Our story begins somewhere in 1988, a 5 year old boy refuses to go to bed and insists that he is a grown up boy and he should stay up late with the adults. The parents finally allow the begging toddler stay up and watch some more TV. Back in those days, Israel has had only one domestic TV channel, and the very late hour was in fact eight o’clock. The whole country watches the news (the only thing on TV that time in the evening). Towards the end of the broadcast, the child, barely able stay awake, suddenly sits up with his eyes open wide. On the screen, there is a flickering image of a large orange missile, engulfed in clouds of smoke and fire, rising slowly with an airplane strapped to its back… The anchor man announces that Discovery has launched into space, none of that actually interested the infant, since he was glued to the screen. As years passed and the infant got older, and his love for planes only intensified as years passed by. The kid has learned a few more important facts, including that these vehicles are not called “a Discovery”, but rather a “Space Shuttle”. And that apart from Discovery there are a few other white aircraft strapped to orange missiles. They were named Columbia, Atlantis, Endeavour. Later he even found out that the orange missiles are actually fuel tanks …

The kid grew up, joined the Army, and three years later it was his time to be discharged (In Israel there is a mandatory three years army duty). Over the years, that early memory has faded, Discovery taking off on the TV screen was forgotten. His love for aviation and to photography on the other hand were not.

In 2003, the then young soldier, along with all of Israel, has witnessed the loss of Ilan Ramon and the six crew members aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia – blunt reminder of the risks faced by all those involved in breaking the boundaries of human knowledge.

As 2007 ended, a computer game was released on the internet, a simulator, one of many, but that one was different, it was about the Space Shuttle, the young boy , whom we can now call by his name – Me – could not resist the temptation and bought the game. Over countless hours in front of the computer, spanning over months of play, the little boy’s love for the big white aircraft strapped to a large orange missile has lit up again.

Back in 2003 in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, NASA decided to end the Space Shuttle program once the contruction the International Space Station is finished. But there is still a lot to be done, and dozens of flights required to complete the task. As the end of 2008 neared, the deadline suddenly felt close, an approximate date was announced for the last flight, November 2010. What? Just two more years? How? Why? What? Those magnificent vehicles, that have been accompanying me throughout my life would be grounded? And I will not be there to see something like that before it’s gone for good?!? It was unthinkable.

What do we do? Begin saving money, and a lot …

Objective: STS-131 launch,
Time: Running out,
Estimated TOT: January – March 2010,
Place: Kennedy Space Center in Florida,
Means: Everything that gets me there…

As the months passed and the due time approached the schedule began to take a more accurate shape, deadline: Mar 18, 2010 at 12:37 AM Eastern Time. STS-131 is scheduled to be fourth to last, three additional launches were scheduled to follow it (STS-135 was a late addition, and was not planned at that time). Discovery was planned for that flight (who said closure?), and the planned launch date was very close to my birthday. (And I have always claimed that the birthday presents you buy for yourself are always the best :))

Now what? A work plan. We must have a work plan. You can’t just knock on the door right? Well, no, you can’t… But NASA was selling tickets. Each ticket costs between $50 and $70.

The Explorer - Shuttle mockup in KSC (photo by uri_ba)

The $50 ticket allows you to view the launch from the KSC visitor center. The 70$ one takes you a bit closer to the launch pad – actually it takes you as close as you can without possessing a Press/VIP pass or NASA astronaut family member… That so called “Civilian close” is actually on the causeway, a bridge a across one of the sea tongues common along Florida’s Atlantic coastline. From there you can see the Launch Pad almost without interruption. The tickets can be purchased directly from  NASA and the ticket sale starts about a month prior to launch. Happy heart I checked the NASA site every few days to see when the sale opens, but alas – I checked the site in the morning when I got to work, but when I got home at night and checked again and I was horrified to discover that the sale has begun, but they ran out before I got home … Now what? Hoping for help, I’ve turned to the SSMS community members for help. It turns out that there are two companies which specialize in these trips. NASA actually sells less than a third of the tickets themselves. The majority are actually going to various specialized tour operators working under NASA’s approval. One of the better known is Gator Tours, an Orlando based company. They sell VIP tickets (That’s how they call the ticket that gets you to the causeway) for about 120$ – more expensive then buying them directly from NASA, but including Orlando hotels pickups to the Kennedy Space Center, transportation to the Causeway for the launch and then back to Orlando (or to whereever they picked you up from). Overall not a bad deal. They sell the tickets online and they have a lot more tickets available for sale then NASA. I bought one on the spot. OK, pressure starts to build up, countdown begins.

Well, now we are going into the more complex issue: other than being a Space Shuttle geek and flight sim enthusiast, I also consider myself an amature photographer, and I take it seriously. If you have ever met a person infected with the shutter bug, you probably know that every self-respecting amateur photographer is not going anywhere without knowing what equipment he needs to take with him. The rule of thumb in this says that the common man will be taking a camera with him on a trip. Photographers on the other hand, take trips for their cameras. I’m going to go into some photography mumbo-jumbo now, so feel free to skip

The Missile garden at KSC (Photo by Uri_ba)

When going on a trip with such a specific subject to be covered, the equipment list must cover this event exactly. No mistakes and no margin for errors. My main work tools already exist, Nikon D300, its “fire rate” is sufficient, and image quality is above and beyond. Now comes the optics. We need to go back and examine the launch site, the Causeway is the closest place to a Space Shuttle launch open for the general public. The viewing distance is between 6 to 7 miles (10 to 12 km) from the launch pad. NASA families and “real” VIP guests, sit closer, about 6 km from the pad. Unfortunately, I’m not that important, so from 11 km away I need a telephoto lens, with the longest focal length I can find. In my bag I usually carry a 80-200, and a x1.7 extender. That gives me 340 mm. Will it be sufficient? No way. A quick search online shows that people cover launches with 800 mm and some with even longer focal-lengths. I also have a “Bigma” (Sigma 50-500) which, on my camera body, is like having a 750 mm lens. But I reject the idea immediately. This event deserves only top to the line, and the Bigma just doesn’t cut it… I began makeing some inquiries, the first option, renting a 200-400VR in Orlando. The second option 300/4, which I can find the money to afford. the the Third option was renting a 600/4. I’ve consulted with some photographer friends, I went over EXIF ​​of launch photos to figure out the best option. One of my friends came to me and said, “Take my  300 f/4”. The Nikon 300/4 is a very sharp lens, with good and fast focus. Combined with my Nikon 1.7 extender it becomes 510 mm with a maximum aperture of f/6.3, same as the bigma, but with superior image quality. Now, I need a backup camera, I cannot afford to miss that shot. I have my old D70 cooked up in the stables, why not take her for one last ride? Possible, but who will shoot with her? I will be busy with the D300. The term “long exposure” crosses my mind. That triggers a quick conversation with myself. “Digital? Long exposure? What? Why? Only film! “,” Film? “,” Yes! Film! You have your F50, it lies in storage, just begging you to take it out for a ride.”,”Heck why not? Let’s roll with it”. So now I also have a backup camera. The F50 mounted on a tripod and shooting long exposure. Asaf Kliger, a good friend and talented photographer , has been doing a lot of long exposures on medium-format cameras and has gained a lot of critical experience. Asaf has worked a lot with the concept of photographing an event from start to finish on a single exposure. “What is our equivalent to that on space shuttle launch?” I ask myself . On the Shuttle program, the “true” launch begins 9 minutes prior to launch, when the Shuttle’s computer system (the GNC) takes over on the launch sequence and countdown from mission control. Unless some major problem occurs, at this poing Mission Control makes an overhaul survey and approves the launch. (STS-135 was an exception, for the first time in the Shuttle program, the clock was stopped at T-31 seconds due to faulty indication. Countdown was manually resumed after about a minute once it was clear it’s an instrumental failure). Endpoint of the frame should be the end of the launching process, i.e. the engine cut-off at orbit insertion, or MECO as acronyms are NASAs must-haves. MECO occurs approximately eight and a half minutes after launch. Which gives us an exposure time of roughly 20 minutes. How do you make a 20 minutes exposure at noon? (The launch was initially planned for mid-day) That is easy, you ask Asaf… 🙂 His first reaction was predictable, “What? I’m coming with you!”. A split second later he remembered that he will be in South America on a trip of his own. But what is the secret of such long exposures photography in broad daylight? Well it’s easy one ND filter 10 stops. In addition, you should have another 3 stops ND filter, that would allow some more flexibility if the light is stronger then expected. “But what is that nonsense are you talking about?”, Asaf continued, “35 mm film? Are you kidding me? Take my Mamiya, I do not intend to drag her all over South America.” And so I got a medium format camera for the long exposure. And just like that the F50 became the third in line. (Asaf ended up taking a Fuji medium format rangefinder with him on his trip and returned with some great photos). So let’s sum up: so far we have the D300 +300/4 + X1.7 for hand-held shooting, which means I need a monopod to help stablize the shots and take the weight. Long exposures of 20 minutes? Two tripods have just been added to the equipment list. One large and impressive for the Mamiya and a second that can be a little smaller and little less stable (which makes it less expensive) for the F50.


Now after this long detour let’s get back to our story.

Discovery Rolled over to the VAB (photo by NASA)

It’s now mid-February 2010. I have secured the launch tickets, and the launch is one month away. Airline tickets – check dates and prices – looks reasonable. And the clock is running. The day after I authorized the flight tickets (and made the payment) the first problem arose, Discovery’s roll over from the OPF to the VAB is delayed due to not-perfect weather conditions. It was too cold and they didn’t want to let her out. Because of the delay and the scheduled launch of a Russian Progress spacecraft, they decide to postpone the launch to April 5th. my flight ticket back home was for April 6th… a quick phone call to the travel agent (and some additional fees) and the flight was pushed back a week and a half. On February 23, Discovery was mated to the ET/SRB stack. On March 5th, she was rolled out to pad 39A.

Discovery During Mating

Discovery During Mating (Photo by NASA)

The stack, which is the “politically correct” name for the Orbiter, ET and SRBs mated together, together weighs about 600 tons (1,200,000 lbs), is almost 100 meters (300ft) high and has to be taken to the launch pad, some eight miles away, The rollout process to the Pad takes about 12 hours using a specially built Apollo-era moving platform called a “crawler”. The Shuttle is brought out to the launch pad about a month prior to the designated launch date, since there are several tests that cannot be done indoors due to the toxicity levels of some of the components. During the tests a faulty valve was found in one of Discovery’s OMS pods. The valve was stuck open. My stress levels spiked, such failure if not fixed, can very easily lead to the cancellation of the launch. Will it abort the launch? Will it be on time? NASA managers decided to delay the decision till more comprehensive examinations are made, a process which will continue during the next week and a half. My flight leaves in four days. I take a decision, I’m going! Shuttle launch or not , I was going. I planned to leave the country a week and a half before launch date, tour the East Coast, the head down to Florida in early April, see the launch and continue to travel in Florida until the end of my trip. I had enough spare time to “suffer” a week-long delay of the launch. But if this problem would eventually become a show stopper the delay will not be a week. It’ll be a three months delay. At least.

Flight day arrived. First stop is Vienna, 24 hours with a childhood friend, see some of the city. From there to New-York, walk around the city to see what all the fuss is all about. But even more important, drop in for a visit in the world’s best and biggest “toy store”, B&H, world famouse for their wide selection of anything photography related… The most critical equipment, the ND filters, was ordered from B&H before the date change, since originally the visit to New-York was to be at the end of my trip not at the beginning. On my second day in New-York, I  got some good news: NASA announced its final decision. The launch will take place as scheduled, Monday April 5th, 6:21 AM – which means it’s going to be a night launch. In April the sunrise in Florida is around 7 am. Leaving New-York, I flew to Chicago for a few days, I heard good things on the city, plus a friend, USA~Driver from the SSM community, lives nearby, so It’s a chance to meet 🙂 From there, to Washington, Actually from Chicago I went to see the Smithsonian Air&Space Museum, Washington was just an excuse. Short hops, short stay,  and lots of pictures.

April has arrived, and I headed down to Florida, the launch being scheduled for Monday. On Friday I went to KSC for the first time, I wanted to see the Discovery on the pad. The visitor center ticket is good for two entries into the complex and valid for a week. If the first launch postponed I want to save myself the option to enter again for launch. And if all goes well, 39A would be empty, and as I have already said, I want to see her on the pad. Tour at Kennedy is not cheap ($ 39 for two entries) but it is particularly enjoyable aviation enthusiast like me, I ran around there from 11 am until closing at 20:00 like a little kid at an amusement park.

Launch day came. I should be at the assembly point at 23:30 for the pickup. There, buses pick up the ticket holders and drive them to the KSC Visitor Center for a few hours and then take them out to the Causeway some 3 hours before launch. Understandably, Security is quite tight. Because I wasn’t staying  in Orlando, I could not enjoy Gator Tours hotel pick-up. I chose instead to be picked up from Titusville. This town is the closest one to KSC and has a park from which the launch can be viewed (distance is about 20 miles). I headed out on Sunday morning in the general direction. That Sunday, April 4th was Easter and one of the coastal towns had its annual surfing contest, so I decided to make a little detour. After several hours of picture-taking, I continued to the Visitor Center for a few hours because I still had my ticket from Friday. I had a few more hours of horsing around like a little kid in the Visitor center and went back to Titusville to have a rest for the night.

At around 1:30 AM I was at the Visitor Center once again, this time having fun with my Mamiya, warming up the engines for the main event. From there we will be taken to the launch pad.

STS-131 Long exposure by uri_ba

STS-131 Long exposure (photo by uri_ba)

From a distance of 12 kilometers (7 miles) the Shuttle looks like a small toy on the horizon, powerful spotlights piercing the darkness. Discovery is there like a jewel on display against the dark night sky. I quickly setup both my film cameras on tripods, starting to take test shots, to figure out the correct exposure for the the launch. I had a few shots planned out before the “main event”, but we got delayed in the Visitors Center so we only had 30 minutes before launch.

I wanted to put the cameras in front of everything, so that people will not show up in the photos. but because we arrived so late, the front line was full of people, so I only had room for one tripod outside the marked area (a rope marking up to where we can stand). The second tripod was placed as close as possible the rope, from my side, the camera on that tripod (the F50) was unable to get a proper picture, because every time someone moved somewhere around me and hit the rope, the rope would oscillate hitting my camera and blur up the exposure. And the people around me could not sit still.

Launch time approaches, the 9 minute mark coming with it. My trusty D300 is in my hand, mounted on a monopod with 300/4 and a 1.7 extender. On one tripod a Mamiya RZ with 50 mm lens (equivalent to 24 mm) and a 3 stops ND filter (it’s night after all). The second tripod, with my F50 and 80-200, and another three stops ND. I counted down with GC for the end of the 9 minute hold. As the crew would hit the timer start switch on the center console, I would press the shutter release button on the Mamiya, at T-9 Minutes starting the exposure that will end at MECO. The F50,will do a 30-second exposure starting about 15 seconds before launch (so I’d have enough time to get back to the D300).

Launch readiness poll, and we have a GO for launch. Now the tension really starts to build up. I verify that all the cameras are set to go. T-9 minutes, Mamiya starts exposure – I suspect it’s under-exposed by about a one stop or so, but there is no time to think and correct. The clock is running. The camera in my hand clicks happily. it was made for this kind of moments. Meanwhile I’m running the checklist in my head. After so many “launches” in SSM, I know the routine by heart. I know which swich each of the crew members is about to flip at any given moment and what they are looking at. The excitement continues to mount. five minutes to launch, our eyes turn up for the sky as the ISS passes overhead. The time of the launch is planned so that it will minimize the fuel requirements for the rendezvous. The Station looks like a bright shining star passing quickly across the sky and it disappears in less than a minute. Thirty seconds to launch. My finger is ready on the faithful F50, 15 seconds, I press the exposure button.

STS-131 liftoff by Uri_ba

STS-131 liftoff (photo by Uri_ba)

Back to 300, My heart is beating. 10… 9… 8.. 7… Main engine start – a small flame on the horizon, a cloud of smoke hides Discovery. 3… 2… 1… And then the two SRBs light up, and with them the sky. The sky which was pitch black is now suddenly painted red. Out of the smoke her majesty, Discovery, slowly rises. With a total wight of over 2000 tons (4,500,000 lbs), it climbs slowly at first, then starts picking up speed. Exposure had become impossible, the flames are so bright I can hardly make out the shuttle. it’s a lost battle for me, I’m hysterically trying to run the exposure from side to side, hoping to get something properly exposed. A minute has passed, The Shuttle is now only a bright point on the horizon, the camera can not focus, Discovery has shrunk to a bright spot. I finally look up out of the viewfinder and breath. The mind starts to understand what I just saw. The most amazing “discovery” was the difference between the speed of light speed of sound. Sound moves through the air at about one km every 3 seconds. I was standing at a distance of about 12 km from the launch pad. Which means that only 40 seconds after launch the engines noise reached our viewing point. At first, a thunder –  the water sound suppression system. Then SSMEs starting up, a fraction of a second from each other. The noise increases, as the SSMEs are brought to full power. Five seconds later, the sound of the SRBs. A low frequency tremors convey an overwhelming sense of power, 3000 tons of thrust, from a distance of 12 km. Even at this distance it’s as noisy as a jet taking off. The low-frequency sounds shake the body and you can feel the engines. It’s just like standing next to the sub-woofer at a live concert. Discovery continues to shrink in the sky, and the Sun begins to rise.

The SSME plumes expand as the atmospheric pressure drops around the Shuttle. The Sun shining off the plume leaves the most visually stunning contrail – Something I’ve never seen on TV. These trails look like huge wings around a bright point of light. The SRB smoke trail is lit up by the rising sun. The plume of smoke is first painted red and yellow. Then slowly shades of blue and purple appear. Amazing sight. As people around begin packing their things, I’m still staring at the sky. I put a wide angle lens on the D300, and begin to pack up my equipment. My medium format camera is still exposing the film. Loudspeakers announce the Shuttle approaching MECO – it is already halfway to Spain, at an altitude of nearly 140 km, almost unimaginable speed of 24 000 miles per hour, eight minutes and forty-five seconds after liftoff. Finally I can stop the exposure. That’s it, finished. now starts the rest of my trip. I came to see what I just saw. And what an experience!

Discovery returned to Kennedy on April 19th at the end of a successful mission, I never got to see it, as she landed, I was on a plane on my way home.

Since then four more missions were flown:
STS-132, Atlantis took to the sky on May 14th 2010. She safely returned on May 26th.
STS-133, Discovery’s last flight launched on February 24th, 2011. Landing on March 9th, marking Discovery’s 356st Day in orbit.
STS-134, Endeavour’s last journey May 16, 2011 – June 1, 2011, bringing Endeavour to a total of 296 days is space.
And last, STS-135, Atlantis’ last voyage to Space, July 8th to July 21st 2011. During this mission the Atlantis crew, as well as the ISS crew, have taken some of the most beautiful images for the shuttle and the ISS I’ve seen. After landing for the final time Atlantis has a total of 306 days in orbit.

Truly an end of an era.

Posted by uri_ba

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