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Riding the Sky One Last Time

by George Murphy on June 7, 2011

The Space Shuttle Columbia takes flight from the Kennedy Space Center on April 12th, 1981. Photo by George Murphy © 1981

In a few weeks NASA’s Space Shuttle program will draw to a close with the final mission of the Atlantis spacecraft under the command of astronaut Chris Ferguson. While this last foray into space by an American manned spaceship does not spell the end of NASA’s vision for the future of U.S. manned space exploration, economic pressures will almost certainly force the continued dilution and delay of that next step, as the debate continues about where the United State’s space program should focus it’s efforts and where manned space flight fits into that plan.

It’s hard to believe that thirty years have passed since I watched from a special viewing site barely a mile-and-a-half away, as Columbia, the first of the Shuttle missions, lifted with a shattering roar from it’s pad at the Kennedy Space center; heralding the return of America’s manned presence in space after a six year hiatus.

The lingering aura of the earlier Apollo program, which had dipped our toes into the waters of human interplanetary travel, still resonated in the our minds; and after a long drought in which only robots and machines climbed the heights above the Earth, there was a feeling of tremendous excitement and pride to see America back in the game of manned space travel.

I was very young, and the stuff of spaceflight was unapologetically awesome. It still is, but now lives in balance-in my own mind at least-within a more complicated world of competing priorities.

Still, I can’t help but think back to how similar it all feels to the last missions of the Apollo program, which themselves had become more utilitarian in scope toward the end; no longer just reaching for other worlds, but aimed more directly at the less glamorous task of simply figuring out how to live and work in space.

Arc lamps light up the distinctive white hull of STS-1 Columbia’s external fuel tank, as crews continue their pre-launch inspections before the setting sun. Photo by George Murphy © 1981

The Space Shuttles that followed were, in many ways, never intended as much more than a glorified trucking company, focused on the business of space. Yet, as much as NASA tried to remind us that the Shuttle’s mission was purposeful and utilitarian, you cannot shake the primal sensation that comes from standing on a shore and watching your own kind pass over the horizon to places few have ever gone.

You have to hand it to those folks who are willing to undertake the risky business of riding into the sky upon controlled explosions at seventeen thousand miles-an-hour, only to drop on a winged brick back to Earth, with just one shot at the landing.

But such is the stuff of heroes-even trucker heroes-who have chipped away, almost quietly, at the ‘dream of space’, standing atop the shoulders of all of the engineers, scientists and others who have waited on the ground, knowing that while they themselves might never know it, almost surely their children would.

After thirty years and one-hundred-and-thirty-four missions, in between helping to build, crew and supply the first permanent human out-post in space, and despite two very poignant tragedies that nearly brought it all to a stop, NASA and the astronauts of the Shuttle program have have brought back jewels in at every level.*

Some have been more obvious, such as the highly visible imagery and science of the Hubble Space Telescope, while others might require a specialized Ph.D. to truly appreciate their significance.

The Space Shuttle Columbia makes its way to the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center for the very first time. Photo by George Murphy © 1981

One that we should all appreciate is the simple and inspiring thought that WE have been out there, exploring the shores of the future because it is in our nature to do so…and while you can’t quantify that meaningfully on a spreadsheet, somehow it matters.


* O.K.–thats 134 missions as of this writing. With the flight of Atlantis, it will be 135 missions flown. Also, the International Space Station mission, while often referred to as “permanent” is currently only planned to continue until 2016. Of course, many things could change this plan, and the debate goes on.


Ahh, the good old film days. I had pretty basic equipment  back then. I couldn’t afford the top of the line gear, but managed to get by with a lot of loaner help from my good friends at Brandon’s Camera Supply in Jacksonville, Florida. My basic kit included a Canon EF camera body and three lenses: a Soligar 28mm ƒ2.8 lens, a Canon 100mm ƒ2.8 FD series lens, and a Canon 50mm ƒ3.5 Macro lens (which doubled as a “standard” lens).

For the STS-1  launch, the longest lens I could get was a rented Nikon 1200mm ƒ11 (again from Brandon’s), so I ended up with a rental Nikon FTn body as well. While I shot Kodachrome 25 as my main film–loved the super fine detail and contrasty color–it just wasn’t going to cut it for the actual launch shots, so I stepped it up to a faster “ASA” Ektachrome film. There’s just not a lot of light coming out of a 12oomm ƒ11 lens!

The black-and-white image of the Shuttle rollout, included with this article, is a Lightroom conversion from a scanned color frame; but I did shoot both color and black-and-white film for the event. I used to use Ilford’s Pan-F 100 speed film a lot in those days, again because of the fine structure and tone it had. For some reason, though, for my coverage of the Space Shuttle, I used Kodak Plus-X Pan; which was the other B&W film I favored at the time. Not as fine grained as the Ilford Pan-F, but loads tighter than Kodak’s Tri-X, where the grain was a feature.


One response to “Riding the Sky One Last Time”

  1. Bill Edwards says:

    Excellent article and photos !
    Astrogators will always rule! 🙂

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