"The Last Blast": Dan Winters Photographs the Shuttle Launch for Texas Monthly

After an aborted attempt on Friday, and another postponement now this afternoon, we are waiting for next Saturday to see the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour. The trip is part of NASA's final set of missions for the entire space shuttle program, making each trip to the heavens even more rare as they close in on sending the final ship, Atlantis, up in June of 2011. (And causing job security anxiety for the astronauts.) In an amazing photo essay for the April 2011 issue of Texas Monthly, photographer Dan Winters documented the first of these final flights, that of the space shuttle Discovery, launched this past February. TM Creative Director T.J. Tucker and Dan share some of the work published in the magazine with us here, and more of the making-of process that went into creating the historic photo essay. From T.J. Tucker, Texas Monthly Creative Director:
In early 2010, I met my good friend and longtime Texas Monthly contributing photographer Dan Winters for coffee at a cool little spot off South Congress Avenue in downtown Austin. We do this a handful of times a year to catch up and talk about upcoming projects. Since I'm fortunate enough to be working at a magazine that still appreciates a good photo essay, I'm always looking for ideas. On this day Dan was talking about NASA and the end of the space shuttle program. In twelve months, NASA would be sending its final missions into space, and Dan wanted to be there--toting not one camera but eight, with the intention of capturing the most dynamic images from this singular fleeting event. Now, let's see, Dan Winters + space shuttles. Hmm . . .

I said yes before he had time to officially ask if TM was interested. That afternoon I pitched the idea to my editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, and it was decided: Dan was headed to Cape Canaveral. Then came the hard part. Access. Anyone can show up, stand six miles from the launch pad, and take photos, but for our plan to work, he needed to get close. Very close. Dan and TM photo editor Leslie Baldwin lobbied hard for months to get the desired access, and after four months of begging and pleading, we got what we were after. And while our access wasn't unprecedented, it was still amazing: Dan's closest setup would be a mere five hundred feet from the ship.

Seven cameras were placed around the launch pad, with hand-built triggers designed to fire at five frames per second in response to the sound of the rockets igniting (no one is allowed within three miles of the site). Dan would hold the eighth camera from the press site located three miles from the pad and document the sheer scale of the event.

On February 24, 2011, at 4:53:24 p.m.(EST), space shuttle Discovery blasted off and Dan's master plan went to work.

Even though these photographs took up ten pages in the April issue of Texas Monthly, they cover only a two-minute period, from ignition to the moment just before the orbiter dropped its boosters at an altititude of a hundred and fifty thousand feet, thirty five miles down range from the launch site, and traveling at over three thousand miles per hour. That's faster than a bullet fired from a rifle! None of the cameras were incinerated in the process, though this has happened to other photographers numerous times. Two weeks after the launch, on March 9, Discovery landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida.

Here is the story as we ran it:



Breaking-down the photos:

(above) Shuttle main engines start sequence. Main engine start occurs 8.5 seconds before solid rocket booster ignition and liftoff. The sparks coming into the frame at lower-left are used to ignite the liquid hydrogen - liquid oxygen propellants.

(above) Liftoff. Main engines are up to full throttle. Notice the blue cone behind the engine nozzles. The exhaust from the main engines is H2O.

(above) Solid rocket booster (SRB) a millisecond after ignition. Unlike the shuttle main engines (SSME) the SRB has no moving parts. It is a housing filled with an extremely volatile solid propellant and when ignited cannot be shut-down. They provide the Shuttle with 86% of her liftoff thrust. They burn for two minutes and are jettisoned and recovered and reused.

(above) A cloud of flame and smoke overtake one of the cameras close to the pad.

(above) Discovery has completed her roll sequence which turns her over on her back. This maneuver is designed to take stress off the orbiter by using the wings' airfoil to generate the negative lift. It also gives the crew the ability to see the horizon.

(above) Close-up of the SSME cluster running at about 75% and the SRBs running at 100%.

(above) Discovery climbing. With the two SRBs and three SSMEs producing 7.8 million pounds of thrust, the trip to space takes only seven minutes.

(above) Now at about 35 miles downrange and traveling at about 3000 miles per hour, the SRBs have just separated from the orbiter and Discovery is now being powered by her internal main engines.

Some production photos, with notes from Dan:

(above) Setting up cameras at the pad area. All cameras were fitted with a sound-sensitive trigger which started shooting 5 fps as the launch sequence started. Since the shuttle initially travels straight up, I set my compositions accordingly. The sequence was story boarded so I wasn't repeating shots. Each camera was set to capture only one final image each.

(above) The day after the launch, my assistant Travis Smith and I drove to my house on Tybee Island, Georgia to post the job. We called it a work vacation. Good food, some swimming in the ocean and some great sessions editing and posting the launch images.

(above) Sequencing photos on the kitchen countertop at my house.

(above) I had the great honor of sharing the experience with my 17-year-old son Dylan. He went as a paid assistant. Dylan is an exceptional student and will study aerospace engineering and will be involved in the private sector space industry. He has worked with me for years and has a deep love for mathematics, astronomy, skateboarding and German cars.

(above) I spent quite a bit of time checking and checking and rechecking camera settings, focus, exposure, etc. I also obsessively checked that the dates were set properly on the sound triggers. The triggers were set to turn on the cameras shortly before the ten minute launch window opened.

Video of the Discovery's final launch sequence here:

What Is This? A Q&A with Dan Winters About His Best Life Bomb
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