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Atlantis: Reporting on history

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image Mitch Traphagen Photo

Reporting on history was interesting but involved a lot of mosquitoes. Photo gallery and launch video at end of article.


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER ­— I arrived at the off-base press office near Kennedy Space Center two days before the launch of Atlantis. I waited in line for about 30 minutes, listening to the woman ahead of me get some very bad news. She was holding what appeared to be a Chinese passport, attempting to understand what the man behind the counter was telling her. He was very apologetic in telling her that she didn’t have the proper credentials, and that at this late date, there was virtually no way she was going to get them. She stepped back away from the counter as a young man nearby attempted to translate for her. Her hands were trembling, but she didn’t really seem to understand what was happening.

How horrific must that have been for her?  She had traveled halfway around the world to report on a historically significant event, only to be stopped a few miles from her goal. I know the man behind the counter felt bad for her. I felt bad for her, too. Certainly her boss would not be happy. A few minutes later I was given my credentials so I don’t know what happened to her, but I’m fairly certain she didn’t get to see Atlantis launch from the press site two days later.

In late May, I completed the application for press credentials to cover the launch. I hit submit on the application form and almost immediately received an automated email saying my request had been received. Then I waited — and waited some more. After nearly two weeks, the press releases touting media events surrounding Atlantis started to arrive and I started getting worried. I knew there would be a crush of media applications for this, the final shuttle launch, and the application process wasn’t simple. Each applicant would have a background check, along with checks to make certain they were legitimate journalists. Finally the email arrived. I was granted access for the entire STS-135 Atlantis mission.

For me, that’s when the insanity began. I took stock of my photo equipment and decided I needed more. I looked at new camera bodies and lenses — all very expensive stuff — and a little voice in the back of my mind said, “Remember, this is history. Do it!  Do it right!” Of course, I couldn’t afford to do it all. With the arrival of three or four UPS packages from photography shops along with the generous help of a good friend who is a very successful photographer, I collected what I thought I would need.

Two days before the scheduled launch of Atlantis, people were already camping out at Space View Park in Titusville. Chairs lined the park’s waterfront — either chained to the rail or actually occupied by people waiting. It was hot and muggy. Certainly there was a sense of adventure for those people, but comfort could not have been part of it. The thunderstorms that arrived later couldn’t have been much fun for them, either.

Titusville was a city of Porta-Potties, television news trucks and space shuttles illustrated in various forms. The excitement in the air was so thick that it was visible. From church signs to junk yards, well wishes were cast to the crew of Atlantis. Even the room number placard on my hotel room door was decorated with a line drawing of a space shuttle. What will this city do once Atlantis returns to earth?  Whom will they have to cheer?  After Atlantis, Americans will have to hitch a ride on a Soyuz rocket — at a ticket price of $63 million each. Kennedy Space Center’s launch schedule has no further launches for astronauts. It may be years before it happens again.

The best attribute of my hotel was its proximity to Kennedy Space Center, beyond that it was a generic, run-of-the-mill place that, while clean, was not a place in which you would want to eat off the floor. I had no expectation of accidentally bumping into Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper there. Two nights before the launch, my room rate was $60. The next night and the night after that, the same room cost $300. But I wasn’t worried about the exorbitant rate because I wouldn’t be paying it. By dawn the next morning, 30 hours before the scheduled lift-off, I arrived at the KSC press site, just three miles from the launch pad. I remained there until Atlantis lifted off.

Thursday was spent attending press events scheduled by NASA, two of which involved bomb-sniffing dogs. On one of those occasions, for a bus ride to the launch pad, rain came down in buckets just as hundreds of photographers, myself included, were told to lay our equipment on the ground in a straight line for the dogs to check out. We had to step back. Almost all of us used our umbrellas and rain jackets to protect our equipment rather than our bodies. We arrived at Launch Pad 39A soaking wet, but in awe of the amazing ship that stood before us. I knew that we would be among the last people to see it there, ready for flight.

I scouted locations to photograph the actual launch. My first choice of a spot, near a cluster of tripods left by other photographers staking out their own spots, proved to be a bust. A network television crew began to set up directly behind my place-holding tripod; they told me that I would be blocking their cameras and would have to move. Sure, I could have told them tough luck and held my ground, but I prefer the view from the high road so I picked up my tripod and found another location. The new place was lower and closer to KSC’s iconic countdown clock and carried the risk of being blocked should a crowd form in front of me. Other photographers told me that the area usually remains clear for all of the cameras.

For two days prior to launch, NASA meteorologists predicted there would be a 70 percent chance that the weather would be unfavorable for lift off. The thunderstorms during the day, along with a heavy layer of clouds into the night only reaffirmed that prediction. As I settled into the front seat of my car for a few hours of sleep, still wet from the rain and dripping sweat from the heat and humidity that lingered into the night hours, I tried to brace myself for more of the same should the launch be scrubbed. I would not even have time to check into a motel, let alone to return to the Tampa Bay area, should the launch be scrubbed, so I had no choice but to stay. While restrooms were available, showers were not; and I harbored no illusion that CNN or CBS would invite me into their elaborate and very comfortable-looking RVs to freshen up.

A few hours later, just before dawn on Friday, I began to lug my equipment to the spot staked out by my tripod. In all, I would have four still cameras pointed towards the launch pad, along with one HD video camera. Between the tripods, lenses, cameras and a host of other accessories, more than 100 pounds of gear was put into place for a launch that NASA was still saying probably wouldn’t happen. But as the morning progressed, the iconic clock in front of me kept counting down. As the clock counted down, I nervously chatted with the photographers alongside of me, including a cameraman and on-air personality from Finland’s largest television network. The clouds above began to clear slightly while the anticipation intensified.

At 10 minutes before the launch, for the 100th time, I checked my cameras. The blast would throw off auto exposure settings, so both shutter speed and exposure had to be set manually. The speed of the shuttle itself would throw off the autofocus features, so the focus, too, was set manually. The countdown clock continued winding down while my heart rate increased. I worried that everything was set correctly.

And then, the countdown clock stopped at 31 seconds. At that point, someone walked directly into the path of my long lenses and said, “Well, that’s a scrub.”

He could not have been more wrong.

I had heard that one of the downsides of being at the press site is that no one cheers, unlike the crowds in the parks around Titusville. At the press site, there was an audible groan when the countdown clock stopped at T-31 seconds. Like me, many members of the press had been on site for 30 or more hours. Everyone had been rained on and mosquito-bitten; they were worn out from lugging heavy camera gear and were just plain tired. To a person, everyone thought first of the safety of the astronauts, but after that, most thought next of a shower and a comfortable bed.

The groans turned to cheers when the clock started again a few moments later. The cheers grew louder as smoke began to shoot out from the launch pad. Even the on-air television reporters broadcasting live could not help but to shout and applaud as Atlantis streaked into the sky.

I expected to feel the initial blast instantly, but the shuttle was already in the air as the first wave of sound hit me. It was so powerful I could feel my clothes moving. I didn’t really get a chance to see the big picture of the launch. I saw short pieces of it through a 600mm lens. But I felt it. It felt amazing.

More than an hour after the launch, the news center at the press site was packed. Long rows of desks were already taken so I found a place on the floor, next to a journalist from South America. Wait! It looked like the guy from CNN, sitting at a desk nearby, was going to leave. I could take his place!  But no, he lingered. There was such an enormous rush of adrenaline within the span of a few seconds that, almost two hours later, most people were still processing it. It can’t be over yet, right?  There is still stuff going on!  By that time, Atlantis was already in space and the estimated million people who turned out for the launch were idling in traffic jams. Yet at the news center, no one seemed to want to leave while the adrenaline was still flowing.

Three hours after the launch and 33 hours after arriving at the space center, I finally got in my car for the drive home. The roads were still jammed all the way to Orlando. I was exhausted but wide-awake. I spent the hours in traffic reflecting on what had just happened. I had just witnessed history and felt privileged to have done so. I said a silent prayer for the crew of Atlantis and for everyone involved with the mission and then thought about the woman from China. I hoped she was OK.

Further Coverage:

Atlantis launches the end of an era

After Atlantis: The future of American spaceflight

Observer News: Atlantis - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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