Photography in Space / by John Clark

The only remaining photo I have of the time I photographed a Space Shuttle launch

The only remaining photo I have of the time I photographed a Space Shuttle launch

I’ve always had a fascination with space. I think it might have been due to a steady diet of Star Wars, Star Trek, Space 1999 and the countless other science fiction movies and TV shows that I watched as a kid, and still do today as an adult!

Back in January, 1998 I was in Florida shooting the Indy Racing League and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races at Walt Disney Speedway in Orlando and talked the media outlet I was photographing for at the time into requesting media credentials for me to shoot the STS-89 shuttle launch. Why NASA approved a motorsports photographer I’ll never know, but I am grateful they did! This flight was the eighth of nine planned missions to dock with the Russian space station Mir.

This was a night launch, and of course I had no idea what to expect. With credential in hand I had access to Launch Complex 39 Press Site at Cape Canaveral; if anyone follows space exploration you’ll immediately recognize this location by the large countdown clock that was frequently shown during the height of the Apollo rocket launches.

This location is between 3 and 3.4 miles from the two launch pads, and are just about as close as anyone is allowed. And there, shining in the night under massive illumination was the Shuttle Endeavour. It was magnificent!

Fortunately, the weather cooperated, all systems were go and the launch proceeded right on schedule. The ground shook like an earthquake, the birds all took to the air in unison, and as the big engines lit up the dark of night turned to the brightness of a sunny day at noon. Literally! I was totally unprepared for just how bright it would become and had set the ISO set too high!

At the top of this post is one of my photos from the launch, taken seconds into the flight. It’s nothing like what the true professional photographers from NASA capture, but it was the best I could do and a memory of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sadly all my slides from the launch were lost in a move many years ago, so all I have left is this scan of an 8x10 print made more than 30 years ago.

NASA does such an amazing job of capturing footage from their missions, and I have been in awe of their work for decades now. I’ve often wondered how they get shots of things like the booster separation, and recently came across this video that does a wonderful job explaining how and why so much is documented. It’s awesome the technology they developed for the photography side of space exploration.

At 17 minutes, it’s more like a documentary but a wonderful watch for space enthusiasts as well as any photographers who are interested in that “behind the scenes” look at what it takes to bring back that amazing photography and film.


Coincidentally, Space X also has a video on how they capture their amazing and inspiring footage as well. It’s much shorter at just 5 minutes.