NASA's Liberty Star vessel returned to Port Canaveral on July 10th towing Space Shuttle Atlantis' right Solid Rocket Booster (SRB). The vessel and crew successfully retrieved the SRB after it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast. The shuttle's left SRB did not return until the next day due to mechanical difficulties with it's towing vessel, Freedom Star. The SRB's help propel the shuttle into orbit in addition to the orbiter's main engines. Click on the image to view the entire gallery from the final launch.
The final launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis also marks the end of NASA's thirty year Space Shuttle Program. Thousands of media representatives and possible millions of spectators converged on central Florida and Kennedy Space Center for the historic July 8th launch.
Despite torrential downpours and lightning the day before, Launch Director Mike Leinbach decided to push through with only a 30% chance for favorable weather at launch time. To the surprise of thousands the launch countdown continued as weather cleared. Aside from a brief mechanical glitch which held the countdown at T-minus 31 seconds, the launch went off without a hitch. Many members of the media, several who had been covering the program for decades, could be seen with watery eyes as they said goodbye to an old friend.
Click on the image to view the entire gallery.
After being delayed for over three months, the oldest of NASA's Orbiter fleet climbed toward the heavens at 4:53pm on February 24, 2011. Space Shuttle Discovery embarked on it's 39th and final mission from Kennedy Space Center in central Florida. Originally slated for launch on Novemer 1st, 2010, a faulty GUCP and cracks discovered on the external fuel tank led to the long delay. Even as the countdown neared T-0 and glitch in the Air Force's command computer triggered a 5-minute hold at the T-5 minute mark. With only two seconds left before the launch would be scrubbed for the day, the launch was finally given a "GO" and the countdown resumed. Once the clock started ticking again sighes of relief and screams of joy permiated the press site three miles from launch pad 39A. Representatives of the worldwide media and spectators had been waiting months, some years for this moment. Some, like your's truly, had made the cross-country trek twice.
This was the second shuttle launch I've attended and been fortunate enough to photograph. With only two launches remaining (Endeavour in April and Atlantis tentatively in June) each makes history. I grew up with these shuttles. Only three remain in active service with Discovery being retired upon landing (or shortly thereafter). With this aging fleet being removed from service, no one knows for sure what will replace them. Will be again send manned rockets into space? Will be send unmanned cargo ships to the ISS (International Space Station)? I don't know. What I do know is I've been blessed with two "once in a lifetime" opportunities to be able to watch Atlantis (STS-117) and now Discovery (STS-133) take to the skies. I'll chaulk the flawless launch of Atlantis to beginners luck - some say I was the lucky charm. Discovery, not so much. Discovery didn't go up without a fight but when she did, it was breathtaking! GO DISCOVERY! GO NASA!
For a behind-the-scenes peak into my coverage of this launch stay tuned for the next episode of my webcast "Fireground Action Photography". Fellow photographers, and FAP webcast regulars Bill Hartenstein, Gene Blevins and Kenji Luster joined me in this adventure and help give an inside look into how we cover a shuttle launch.