Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010...17:47

Final Launch Of Space Shuttle Atlantis

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With more than half a century (I hope) before time runs out for me, it’s premature to start a bucket list, yet I do have a vague mental list of things I’d like to experience. They’re not in any order; however, sometimes a particular item gets moved to the top. This happened recently when I realized NASA’s Space Shuttle program would end in 2010.

Space Shuttle Atlantis was scheduled to lift off for the final time at 2:19p on Friday May 14, 2010, scheduled being the key word as these things can easily get postponed due to weather or technical difficulties. Since the shuttle would be docking with the International Space Station, there was only one launch window per day, lasting for a few minutes. My plan was to take Thursday and Friday off from work, fly to Orlando on a red-eye Wednesday night and fly back on Sunday evening which would, in theory, give me three shots at seeing the launch.

There are a number of places from which one can view a launch, the closest (for the general public) being the NASA Causeway. Tickets are required, they typically go on sale several weeks before the launch date and sell out in a matter of seconds. If you’re planning on attending one of the final two space shuttle launches, check the space shuttle launch viewing tickets page at Kennedy Space Center. Another option is to book a tour e.g. Central Florida Tours, which is what I had to do as I was unable to obtain causeway tickets via the Kennedy Space Center. IMHO, do not bother trying to get tickets to view the launch from anywhere other than the NASA Causeway. You CANNOT see the space shuttle on the launch pad from the Kennedy Space Center or Astronaut Hall Of Fame as it is blocked by trees. If you are unable to get causeway viewing tickets, head to Spaceview Park in Titusville. It’s a few miles further, but at least you will be able to see the shuttle the whole time as well as the initial ignition of the main engines and solid rocket boosters.

When my wife and I arrived in Orlando on Thursday we picked up some supplies to bring to the launch, some crackers, cookies, Yoo-Hoo, Florida oranges (which were no where near as good as California ones…) etc. On Friday we were picked up from our hotel @ 5:30a and dropped off at the Kennedy Space Center shortly after 7a. We had about 2.5 hours to look around before standing in a giant line to get back on the bus to the causeway (make sure you ride the Space Shuttle Launch Experience as it will give you a good feeling for what you’re about to see).

We arrived at the viewing site around 11a and walked around looking for a good spot to view the launch from. We happened to be on a segment that had a large countdown clock and though the bleachers and shoreline already had plenty of people in them, there was still a lot of good viewing spots as well as some tents which offered nice shade. There’s really no reason to sit in the sun for 3 hours as you can find good viewing spots a few minutes before launch. Another neat thing about being by the countdown clock were the speakers via which you could hear all the chatter between the various launch control centers and the shuttle astronauts. There are also a number of souvenir and food trucks scattered about with reasonable prices (I think the hamburgers were $3).

The launch went off without a hitch and was quite a sight. After about 30 seconds, we could even feel the shockwaves from the solid rocket booster ignition. There are many sites out there dedicated to space shuttle launch photography and all of them tell you if it’s your first launch, don’t try to photograph it, you’re better off just soaking in the moment without worrying about f-stops, tripods, haze etc. I ignored that advice since I was fairly confident the photography wouldn’t be very distracting to me. I did some light measurements beforehand and decided that a shutter speed of 1/250 @ f8 with ISO200 would work well. I had a 200mm lens with a 1.4x tele-converter on a 1.6x crop DSLR (Canon 40D) for an effective focal length of 448mm. I also set my camera to rapid fire auto-bracket +/- 1 stop so I would take a variety of photos at 1/125, 1/250 and 1/500 which I thought would compensate for the different amounts of light coming off the smoke, flames, when the shuttle was a dot in the sky etc. My lens has 4 stops of optical image stabilization so I could hand hold the camera and be reasonably confident the photos would be sharp. This setup had the dual benefit of acting like binoculars (well monoculars in this case) and as the shuttle launched I viewed it with the naked eye and through the lens on and off as I saw fit.

Here’s a photo: STS-132

More photos can be found in my set: STS-132 Launch on Flickr

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