Learning the Three “R’s” Space Shuttle Style: Rollout, Rollback, Rollover (Part 2)

Déjà Vu
I returned to the KSC Press Site at launch minus one day. It was déjà vu. We don’t get too many “do overs” in photography. For at least some aspects of this event – I was getting a do over.

At 6 am, I lined up my remote camera gear alongside waiting buses for bomb dog inspection. Now, armed with knowledge and experience, I felt more comfortable. We boarded buses for the mounds. With the launch time now in the morning, I now planned my remote shoot from the dike, east of the launch pad, with water reflection, tall grass, and potentially wildflowers.

Photographers setting up remote cameras at and near the mounds.
The plan to re-distribute photographers from the mounds to other spots with rovers did not materialize. After about one hour waiting at the mounds, I rode the bus back to the Press Site with photographers from the mounds done with their setup. Our media escort, as promised, returned with a van taking three of us photographers to the dike. Once there, I picked out a location with some flowers and tall grass in the foreground and set up two cameras. One wide shot, set at 35 mm to get the plume, surrounding environment, and reflection – and a tight shot (this time, shooting for a friend), set at 70 mm to get the shuttle itself coming off the pad. Tripods, stakes, bungee cords, timers – I set them up quite easily – I was getting pretty good at this.
One last check of the camera settings – manual exposure at 1/1000 second and f/10 aperture – expecting a sunny day and bright plume from the Solid Rocket Boosters. Check the remote trigger and cables - check the setting on the timer one last time – timer on “Auto?” – yes – bag the setup.
With one successful remote shoot behind me, I was now more confident.
My remote gear waiting for a ride.

My remote camera setup at the dike, about 1/2 mile away from the pad.
After remote camera set up, I went directly to the crawlerway for RSS rollback at 11 am, joining other photographers bused there from the Press Site. It was good to photograph RSS rollback during daylight – as opposed to night during the first launch attempt. It’s like getting a bonus shot!
Time lapse 8x speed video of RSS rollback.
After RSS rollback, we were done for the day. Launch day is expected to be long. Astronaut walkout is at 5 am with show time for the bus ride at 3:30 am. 7 pm bedtime was not easy for me. I tossed and turned and maybe got two hours of sleep before the 1 am alarm. I felt sorry for the lone cashier at Dunkin Donuts. There was a long line of people waiting for their coffee and doughnuts at 1:30 am and he was overwhelmed. I guess they weren’t expecting a crowd getting coffee that early in the morning on shuttle launch day!
All Over in 22 Seconds
At the Press Site, repeat scene: line up our gear behind the ladders next to the buses for bomb sniffing dogs, get on the bus, go to the O&C building, run to the crowd line to jockey for a good photo location to the van. We waited for nearly one hour for the crew to walk out. Night time made this photo shoot difficult. As opposed to RSS rollback, crew walkout was now at night instead of day. Lighting was tough – not well lit, even with my external flash (and I was not exactly opposite the Astrovan).
The NASA Huey circling tightly above the O&C building and personnel carrying helmets to the Astrovan signaled that the time was close. Then cheers and flashes went off. The scene was reminiscent of paparazzi next to the red carpet at the Oscars. The crew savored the attention and stayed in front of the Astrovan just a wee bit longer. The caravan then whisked off to the launch pad. While on the bus ride back to the Press Site, I joked: “I will keep an eye out for the Astrovan going back the opposite direction!”

Right to left: Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Gregory Johnson, Mission Specialists Michael Fincke, Roberto Vittori, Andrew Feustel, and Greg Chamitoff.
View of the wire service remote cameras looking down the doorway where the crew walks out.
Once back at the Press Site, we set up for our photos there. I wanted to do a shot of the shuttle with the American and Endeavour flags. Unfortunately, the wind was calm and the flags were not flying. I set up my video camera with a view of the famous big clock. Sunrise revealed a bustle of activity all around: satellite trucks lined up in the parking lot, news tents everywhere, and photographers with their tripods all along the water.

The wind was starting to pick up…it looked like I would be able to get my flag shots after all. However, that wind was a sign of what was to come: clouds were moving in. Word had it though that clouds were not a concern for launch – the cloud band was expected to move on by launch time. Sunshine was coming and going – with more clouds than sun. I was starting to get concerned – not only for the potential of a launch scrub due to weather – but also for my remote camera shots looking ugly by not being sun lit.
Launch time came quickly…almost anticlimactic. After the launch scrub 17 days earlier, all that time spent waiting in line on buses for things to happen, I couldn’t believe we were inside L minus one minute and counting – it looked like Endeavour was really going to go this time. 5…4…3…2…1…zero…smoke from the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) became visible and a bright flame trail appeared as the shuttle lifted off. Within the next two or three seconds, I took my flag shots. Endeavour then began its roll program, the External Tank was now facing us. About 15 seconds after liftoff, I started to hear the launch. It was not as loud as I remembered from my previous shuttle launches.
At L plus 22 seconds, the shuttle disappeared into the overcast clouds. I stared at the sky, hoping it would re-appear behind a hole. Nothing. I looked at the big clock, well before L plus two minutes - when SRB separation would normally be visible - I put my camera down and stopped my video…disappointed. I waited 17 extra days, flew home to California and back to Florida for this?
Endeavour disappears into clouds 22 seconds after liftoff.  The shot is out of focus, but you get the idea.
Straight up into the clouds.
My video of the launch from the Press Site.  The camera does not pan up to follow the shuttle…but wait for the sound of the launch appearing at about L plus 15 seconds.
I went into the News Center and grabbed a seat in the audience for the launch plus one hour press conference. It ended up being standing room only. It was interesting to see the press conference in person instead of on TV – the room is actually a lot smaller than it appears on TV. During the conference, one of the NASA officials commented that the brief sighting of the launch was the shortest in memory and it was unfortunate that there were no flight rules regarding how long the launch must be visible for the spectators. In fact, during this launch, the ceiling (between 5000 and 5500 feet) was never a concern. Flight rules only specify cloud thickness and it was never a concern for this launch day.
It was time to retrieve the remote cameras. Once again, just like setup, unless you had your camera at the mounds, you had to wait for a rover to take you in a van. I flagged every van that came back into the parking lot looking for an open seat going to my destination. At launch plus four hours, I finally got a ride to the dike. As the van slowly crept down the dike, I got concerned when I didn’t see my setup. I saw the setup after mine (a giant box), but not my setup. Hmmm…did someone take my cameras? Did they fall into the water? As it turned out, I had set them up behind a tall bush, so they were not visible until we got closer.
I worked quickly, took everything down and threw them back into the van. I didn’t check the photos until I was in the van and we were underway. I got my shots, but they were severely underexposed. I expected that, since I had set the exposure expecting it be a sunny shot. I was disappointed, but not too worried. Since I shot raw, I knew that I should be able to fix the underexposure. With all the excitement now over, I went back to my hotel in Cocoa Beach and had a nice nap to recover from the long morning.
View from the dike prior to launch.  My setup is on the right.
My remote shot.  I had success, but it would have been better if it was sunlit.
View of the empty launch pad about four hours after launch.
Even though Endeavour had launched, things were happening quickly at KSC for Atlantis in preparation for STS-135, the final Shuttle mission. The next day, Atlantis would rollover from Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) 1 to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). After that, on the next day, Atlantis would be lifted and mated to the External Tank (ET) and Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) in the VAB. The next two days would be new experiences for me: I had never seen a rollover or a lift. I was excited. Anything would beat that disappointing launch.
The next morning, repeat scene: line up my gear next to waiting buses. Watch the sunrise. Bomb sniffing dogs come by. We scramble and board buses to the OPF.

We lined up along the road/taxiway between the OPF and VAB. It was a gorgeous sunny morning with perfect blue skies. OPF-1 doors were open and we could see Atlantis’ tail and its three main engines. When the move started, Atlantis moved ever so gingerly as the tail cleared the door. After that, push back and movement forward proceeded at a normal (walking) pace. Halfway between the OPF and VAB, rollover paused for a few hours so workers could have a last photo op with the last Space Shuttle.
Ben and Ben: me with famous launch photographer Ben Cooper.
The four-person crew for STS-135 was also on hand to see this event. I was at the right place at the right time when the crew came up to the nose end of Atlantis and posed for photos. All around me, photographers yelled out to the crew to gain their attention so they would look their way. They also yelled things like: “do a thumbs up”, “wave”, etc. Of course the crew did whatever they wanted, ignoring the photographers. I thought that was rather humorous.
Left to right: Mission Specialist Rex Walheim, Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus.
After lunch break, we returned to the entrance of the VAB and got shots of Atlantis completing the rollover. It was a touching moment to see workers follow the shuttle holding a “We’re Behind You, Atlantis!” banner. This would be the last time for them.
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Time lapse 8x speed video of Atlantis’ rollover.
Meanwhile, back at the News Center, plans were put together to photograph Atlantis’ lift and mate inside the VAB the next day. This is where the orbiter would be lifted vertically from the transfer aisle and moved to the next bay to the waiting and already-assembled ET and SRB stack for mating. Approximately two weeks after mate, Atlantis would then rollout to the launch pad in preparation for launch. Since space was limited on the catwalk in the VAB, photographers were split into three groups of 30. Three photo opportunities were created throughout the day to view the lift at different stages from two different levels.
Photographers get briefed on plans for the lift next day.
Space Ships
We also got word the SRB retrieval ships were returning to Port Canaveral that evening. The port is offsite from KSC, so we would be on our own. I had not planned to see the ships on my trip. Truthfully, I hadn’t even considered it nor had I really cared. But, since they are part of shuttle processing as well, I decided to go see them. I was glad I did. It was quite an interesting sight! We got to Jetty Park at Port Canaveral at 7 pm, in the nick of time. As we pulled into the parking lot, we saw people running to the shore. Sure enough, Liberty Star was coming in with one of the SRBs in tow. We quickly grabbed our cameras and got our shots. There was just enough time to eat our to-go dinners before Freedom Star arrived within the next hour with the other SRB. It was funny to see all the photographers gathered there at the park – it was the same crowd from the News Center. Someone joked – where was the sign up list for buses?
The two ships would spend overnight at the port with their rocket cargoes before proceeding through Canaveral Lock the next morning to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for SRB pickup for refurbishment.
By now you can guess what happened first thing at the Press Site the next morning. Yes…line up gear next to buses, wait for bomb sniffing dogs, watch the sunrise, and get on board buses. It was not natural to see the sunrise four days in a row. Nevertheless, we were there to see something cool that will never happen again.
The bus took us to the VAB for our first of three photo opportunities. On the transfer aisle, Atlantis was still sitting on the transporter at ground level while workers attached the crane in preparation for the lift. The process progressed slowly and carefully.
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Ill-fated Columbia STS-107 mission patch inside the VAB.  I did not know Columbia is stored here in the VAB.
On the bus ride back to the Press Site, our guide set guidelines for the next photo op, scheduled to take place from the VAB catwalk on levels 5 and 16. We were not allowed to bring any transmitting electronics (such as cell phones and remote key fobs); we were to take only minimal camera equipment, no tripods, and we were to tether our cameras around our neck or wrist. We were warned that we don’t want to end up on the news as the one responsible for damaging the shuttle prior to its last mission and spend time in jail as a result!
At lunch, while waiting for our second of three photo ops, we found out the lift processing was running behind schedule. What’s worse, there would no longer be a third photo op because all of the escorts will have hit their duty time for the day at 4 pm. But at least by now Atlantis is already vertical and we would get to see the orbiter hanging. Inside the VAB, at level 16, we were level with the crane with Atlantis hanging below. Wow! The ET and SRB stack were visible in the next bay.
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After spending around 30 minutes on level 16, we moved down to level 5 where we were eye level with the shuttle wingtip. Wow again! I was literally within spitting distance to Atlantis. While I was standing there next to the wing leading edge, I couldn’t help but think that it was the part that got damaged and caused Columbia’s demise. Leaning over the railing edge, I was so close that it was impossible to get a photo of the entire orbiter, even with my super wide-angle 10 mm lens. Everyone was just in awe of the sight of the shuttle hanging right in front of them; everyone had a snapshot of themselves taken. Just to think, this is the last time a space shuttle – any space shuttle - would be like this.
There was one event left for the day – the mating. Unfortunately, there were no more buses and tours to be had. Diehards stuck around for a chance to go on private tours in vans back to the VAB. I was not special enough for a private tour. At 6 pm, when the News Center closed shop, I packed up my stuff, said goodbye to the Press Site, and contemplated my two trips there. The trip was filled with stress, frustration, and disappointment. Not to mention added expense. But the excitement, history, and awe-inspiring sights outweighed all the negatives. Just to be part of history – that part alone – made it worthwhile. How often do you get to say, “I was there for the last (fill in the blank) of NASA’s Space Shuttle program”?

Confused about Space Shuttle processing flow?  Here is a great overview diagram from the Visitor Complex:

On to Part 3.
Copyright 2011 Ben Wang.  Photos and words may not be used without permission.


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