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.

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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.

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