Saturday, July 23, 2011

To a Job Well Done

Posted by Adrienne Miller, CAPE CANAVERAL, FL -- I spent a good portion of my adult life working in aviation, and I have always been intrigued by flight and space travel. So you can imagine how excited I was to be part of a special tour of the Space Shuttle facilities -- a tour culminating with the launch of Atlantis STS 135, the program’s final mission. Because the shuttle program was ending, NASA employees had created a tribute wall with all of their signatures in the shuttle’s main engine processing facility.  While uncertainty looms as to future space endeavors in the United States, what became readily certain to me during my tour was just how many dedicated people with diverse areas of expertise had contributed to this piece of history while it was in the making.

 We were first taken around the main engine processing facility.  There is no way to prepare oneself for the size and scope of these incredible engines that power the shuttle into orbit until you actually see them. The thruster ‘cone’ is huge.  It is hard to imagine the magnitude of heat, flame and power that release through it.  The vehicle assembly building is equally enormous -- making it difficult to capture its size was a small camera. 


We were then taken to the building where spacecraft are de-commissioned.  The first shot I took was from under the nose gear bay, with its doors opened wide.  Standing under the belly of the spacecraft, looking forward, I couldn’t help but reminisce about the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and how it might have felt to have a giant spacecraft hovering over your head.  It was surreal to look up at this thing called the shuttle and know that it has been to space and back, blasted off from the Launch pad under tremendous combustion power.  The exterior’s tiles are actually very small, measuring about six or seven square inches. These tiles protect the spacecraft from both extreme heat and cold.  We were able to hold one. Surprisingly, they felt a little like Styrofoam in texture and weight. 

Our final tour stop for the day was the launch pad. This really was a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity.  One surprising sight was the hundreds of NASA cameras, varying in shape and size, mounted alongside the bushes lining the perimeter of the area.  They are remote controlled as no living creature in that proximity to a launch would live to tell about it.

The next day was the launch and all systems were set for take off.  Fueling the tanks had begun in the wee hours of the morning.  We were taken to the operations support building for the pre-launch NASA briefing.  The room was filled with politicians, space program officials (U.S. and other countries), celebrities, and, of  course, us.  Astronauts from previous missions spoke, the head of the program spoke, and we were briefed on the sequence of events that would happen at the launch pad.  We were told, however, that any mission can be scrubbed at the five-minute mark if conditions deteriorate or if a mechanical problem occurs. 

After the briefing we went outside to the viewing balcony, which is the required three miles from the launch pad.  Below us was the giant media “campground” with TV cameras, tents, trucks, platforms, and people.  It was almost like observing a carnival.  In nervous anticipation, we waited to see if the launch was going to happen.  Five minutes before take off an announcement came over the public address system. The shuttle would launch as scheduled.  Moments later we heard the official voice counting down and then the rocket engines firing up. We eagerly took one photograph after another as the clouds of exhaust grew, and flames below the engines became evident.  They got brighter and bigger, creating a huge cloud stretching out on both sides of the shuttle. Even as far away as our viewing balcony you could feel the intense vibrations as the shuttle lifted off.

And then, what seemed like less then millisecond later, the cloud cover was pierced by the spacecraft, leaving only the long trail of exhaust beneath as proof that it was up there or that it had ever been on the ground.

Adrienne Miller is a recent graduate from Georgia State University with a major in Sociology.  She is also a freelance photographer who has traveled the world taking photographs of everyday life. She has a website dedicated to her photographs of the people of Tanzania called Faces. You can also view her previous Social Shutter posts: On the Roads of India and The People of Zanzibar. She can be contacted at You can view more of her NASA photographs on our Facebook page.

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