I don’t remember when I heard the news of Discovery’s transfer mission, but I do remember deciding that instant that I would do my best to photograph her departure. She’s always been my favorite orbiter, and we’ve worked together before. Despite my best efforts to formulate a plan, there wasn’t much public information available to do so. All I could find until two days ago was an anticipated arrival time in Washington D.C. of 10 am. I estimated it would take about 2.5 to 3 hours to make the flight, giving us a departure time of around 7am, coinciding with sunrise, which sounded reasonable. NASA understands the power of a good image, so I speculate they scheduled departure around first light. Some sleuthing on twitter confirmed this timeframe, as well as turned up this unofficial graphic of a potential flight path, which turned out be the only information we had to go on. A quick phone call was made to my associate Wes Walker and our tentative plan was confirmed. We would leave in the early morning, our destination Cocoa Beach, the only location that would be overflown twice. I would be shooting stills on a d300/80-200 combo, Wes capturing motion on a 5dMk2, and Eric Windjack as an extra hand.
I left Jacksonville at 0345 that morning, picked Wes up in St Augustine at 0430, and Eric in Deland at 0545. An hour and 10 minutes later we were crossing the intracoastal on 528, final destination in sight. I pulled up SpaceflightNow.com on my iPhone to monitor the mission progress, and they were already taxiing. We were down to the wire, driving as quickly as we safely could. Eric was watching the live stream, reporting that the combo was now on the roll, accelerating down the runway, departing KSC for the final time.
As we reached a1a, the mammoth 747/orbiter combo were barely discernible on the live feed. Just as Eric said “They’ve gotta be close” I looked over my left shoulder out the drivers side window to experience one of the most unforgettable scenes of my life, An American Space Shuttle, and everything it represents, escorted by a T-38, cruising at 500ft directly to my right. For just one instant I was traveling in tandem with a space shuttle, and it was incredible.
As they continued south for a flyby of Patrick Air Force Base, we parked at the absolute first opportunity, grabbed our rigs that Wes prepped on the approach and hit the ground running, literally. I only had the 80-200 with me, and compositing has been part of my workflow for a few years now, so before their return I shot the entire scene as roughly twenty frames, starting at the top left of my intended final frame, moving down one “subframe” at a time, three tall, three wide, with a few extras all over for redundancy. Just a few moments later I shot the final element of my composition, the 747/orbiter combo, flying north over the Atlantic ocean, perfectly framed in front of the rising sun.
Countless hours of research and labor, unfathomable amounts of engineering, the hopes and dreams of a nation’s people, the catalyst for so many children’s dreams. This is the orbiter that flew both “return to flight” missions after the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, the courier for the Hubble Space Telescope, one of science’s greatest tools, and our first eye into the origins of our existence. Discovery was departing, and she was doing it in style.
The time for retirement of the shuttles may have come, but the legacy they leave behind is tremendous. In consideration of that fact, I’ve decided to publish these images as Creative Commons, to be shared freely with all mankind, in hope that they may inspire others to chase their dreams. Aim High.
Discovery's Final Flight by Bryan Rapoza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.bryanrapoza.com.