Photo Narrative of the Last Space Shuttle Launch

July 4-8, 2011
By Sean Sullivan

All photographs by Sean Sullivan (all rights reserved), unless otherwise noted

I was at the Kennedy Space Center press site covering the launch of Atlantis on flight STS-135, the last launch of the space shuttle program. I arrived on July 4 to cover the arrival of the astronauts from Houston, and stayed through the launch four days later. Covering a launch countdown can be a very intense experience, and the following series of photographs give a taste of what it was like to be there for this historic event.

This is a thumbnail index to the photographs. As an alternative, you can view a narrative page that shows all the large images in a series; that is preferred as a way to view this content. But this thumbnail index is faster to load, and provides better access to individual images.

July 4

  The astronauts arrived at the Kennedy Space Center.
  Set up our Rangecast audio feed equipment at KSC press site.
  Then I found a place to watch the fireworks from Merritt Island.
  I watched from next to the bridge between Merritt Island and Cocoa
July 5

  The Dragon capsule on display (first commercial spacecraft to return to Earth)
  A close-up of a rainbow pattern on the spacecraft (inside a thruster?)
July 6

  One of my cameras doing a timelapse series of images at sunrise
  Sunrise over launch pad 39-A
  Beautiful colors on the clouds
  Someone took a photo of me photographing sunrise
  The timelapse camera captured the first light of the sun
  My timelapse camera continuing after sunrise
  Making sandbags - NASA requires them on tripods placed this close to a shuttle launch
  News conference - weather forecast and countdown status briefing
  Remote camera photographers waiting for access to the launch pad
  I set a timelapse camera to record my placing remote camera equipment at the pad
  The trip was to position equipment, but not finish setup, and electronics were left off
  Getting the 15 sandbags out in advance was especially helpful
July 7

  On our way to launch pad 39-A to set up remote cameras
  The bus dropped us off at the main camera site
  Waiting for a van to take me inside the pad perimeter fence
  Watching other photographers setting up at the main camera site
  This is from a timelapse camera recording the process of activating the cameras
  The timelapse camera captured an image of a visit by the NASA escort
  I paused during a rainshower, and AP took a photo of me with the cameras
  One of my remote cameras, set up and ready for launch
  A view of the same camera from the front side
  It's the second camera from the left in this view
  The camera site is only 700 feet from the space shuttle
  A peek at the custom hand-built camera firing system
  My other four remote cameras, set up and ready for launch
  A closer view of the cameras
  A view of these four cameras from the front side
  Sound sensor, tripod with bungee cord to secure, raindrops on outer bag
  Control electronics are in the center box
  In context, along with cameras set up by other photographers
  Taking shelter in the NASA escort's van during heavy rain
  Side view of the space shuttle launch pad
  Other photographers setting up a camera in the rain while under plastic sheeting
  One of my remote cameras took a photo of Atlantis through rain on the lens
  NASA retracted the RSS revealing the shuttle, but KSC was still very wet
  Someone took a photo of me with Atlantis
  Line of photographers viewing Atlantis
  Tropical stormy day, bad forecast for launch time, we all anticipated a delay
  Returning to the bus when NASA said it was time to go
  Satellite uplink trucks in the KSC press site parking lot
  Second viewing opportunity in twilight with the xenon floodlights
  The shuttle is taken to the pad on a crawlerway of rocks that get crushed
  Close-up view of Atlantis
  Yes, these cables are indeed underwater
  Looking towards the countdown clock
  Remote camera twilight photo of Atlantis through rain on the lens
July 8

  It stopped raining around midnight, but it was still overcast
  The xenon floodlights at the launch pad illuminated the clouds
  Atlantis was fueled overnight - night view from a remote camera
  The same camera showing Atlantis after sunrise
  NASA took a photograph of Atlantis on the launch pad - my cameras are marked
  A closer view of same image (1 camera by left arrow, 4 cameras by right arrow)
  Astronauts were all over the place at KSC press site
  Media and NASATweetup attendees waiting for Atlantis astronauts
  Atlantis astronauts on their way to the space shuttle
  Looking down the viewing line as the Atlantis astronauts depart
  I set up my tripod (second from left) along the water at press site
  Photographers along the water's edge at the KSC press site
  Artists were there as well, recording their impressions of the day
  At launch time, nothing happened - we couldn't hear countdown, and it held at T-31 seconds
  Main engine start (seen from the stand-alone remote camera 700 feet away)
  Exhaust clouds blowing in front of Atlantis at liftoff
  Climbing to orbit
  After liftoff, the pad covered in clouds (white from main engine, orange from SRB's)
  Liftoff from another remote camera 700 feet away (rightmost in the cluster of four)
  View of main engine start from the KSC press site (3 miles from the shuttle)
  Liftoff (telephoto view from the KSC press site)
  And the last space shuttle ascent to orbit
  The shadow of the shuttle's exhaust plume falling across the cloud deck
  After the launch, a TV reporter asked me to describe my impressions
  I was viewing the launch from directly under the flag by the countdown clock
  Someone photographed me while I was taking pictures of the flag
  And when I was putting away my equipment after launch
  Discussing photography at the KSC press site
  The KSC auditorium filling up for the post-launch press conference
  And a view of the other side of the auditorium seating area
  Veteran reporter Irene Klotz asking a question at the press conference
  Launch director Mike Leinbach getting a hug from her after the press conference
  Assigned media desks in the KSC press center
  Looking towards the front of the KSC press center
  Looking across the front region of the KSC press center
  And looking towards the back of the KSC press center
  Returning to the launch pad for camera pickup
  Someone photographed me with four of my remote cameras after launch
  And when I was starting to disconnect the camera system at the pad
  A good sign when inspecting the film cameras after launch
  Someone took a photo of me with the other remote camera
  Camera equipment in a pile at the KSC press site before loading into my van
  And after a successful launch, it was time to leave the KSC press site