Shuttle photography with the pros


Last week, the world witnessed the launch of the STS-134 Space Shuttle Endeavour. The 14-day mission will see a crew of six astronauts deliver parts and perform repairs to the International Space Station and will be the penultimate flight in NASA’s space shuttle program. It was a fascinating event, but what many readers may not know is that Nikon has a long affinity with shuttle launches at the Kennedy Space Centre. Nikon Professional Services (NPS) has provided support for every launch since the very first one, Space Shuttle Columbia, over 30 years ago. We’re a pioneer when it comes to placing, and assisting others in placing, cameras near the launch pad, and are privileged to be the only non-press outfit that has a permanent building at the Complex 39 Press Mound.

Shooting shuttle launches is, as you can imagine, very tricky. The closest handheld positions are over three miles from the pad and even with a long lens the images suffer from Florida’s atmospheric haze. Therefore, ability, knowledge and technical expertise in placing remote cameras near the pad is crucial to capturing these historic images.

We caught up with the NPS crew to see what our photographers went through prior to the final countdown of the STS-134 earlier last week, and now we wanted give you an insight into the complex art of photographing space shuttles.

2 days before launch (T- 48 hours) – The photographers surveyed the areas around the Launch Pad and picked the spots where they planned to position their remote cameras. These survey trips are simply to ‘stake out’ sites and leave a marker or a tripod to let others know that the spot is taken. After the survey run, the photographers will then prep all the remote equipment that will go out the next day.

Image © Ron Taniwaki/NPS

Nikon’s Ron Taniwaki placing remote cameras inside the Pad perimeter for the STS-134 Launch. Inside the pad, clearance is only given to agencies and others that have lots of remote experience or have a unique proposal that NASA signs off on.

Image © William Pekala

NPS General Manager Bill Pekala setting out remotes for image of the launch across a small bay. The cameras will sit there for over 24hours waiting for the actual launch. With the unpredictable weather in Florida, it’s always necessary to cover the remotes in case of late afternoon rainshowers.

Image © William Pekala

24 hours before launch (T- 24 hours) – The photographers had a 6am start to get the remotes out on time. There is usually a three to five hour window to actually place the remotes. All work must be done by a certain time and the range is closed until after the launch to everyone other than NASA personnel.

Image © William Pekala/NPS – STS-122 Before RSS rollback Shuttle launched 7th Feb 2008

Image © William Pekala/NPS –
STS-122 After Rollback

Image © Ron Taniwaki/NPS

STS-134 launch photo

Day of the launch – The STS-134 crew was awakened at midnight to have breakfast and suit up for the launch. As it was scheduled for 08:56:26, it meant they had to arrive at the press transportation line at 4am. The ‘walk out’ photo opportunity of the STS-134 astronauts took place about 5:00am and they were transported to the pad at around 05:41 am for strap into the shuttle. This was the last chance for photographers to get photos of the crew.

Launch – And lift-off….even with remote cameras in place almost all photographers still shoot from the press site just to cover themselves in case the remotes don’t fire on time or at all.

Image © Mark Suban/NPS

Photo from the press complex 39 – this is the closest manned site allowed for coverage. This shot is with a 600mm lens.

After the launch – (T+2-6 hours) – The wait begins… No one is allowed to retrieve their remotes until the pad safety crew checks for toxic fumes and makes sure the pad and the surrounding area is safe. The length of time depends a lot on which way the wind was blowing at the time of launch. For STS-134 the wait was about four hours since the wind was blowing toward the area that most people had placed their remotes.

Image © 2007 William Pekala

Image © William Pekala

Image © William Pekala

Image © William Pekala

A D3 with the special NASA designed blimp that protects the camera from the harsh temperature changes the camera must endure during space walks. The D3 is the only camera presently certified by NASA for EVA work.

The astronauts have been in space for over a week now, during which time two of them, Drew Feustel and Mike Fincke qualified for the sixth-longest spacewalk in US history – eight hours and seven minutes! The crew also received a phone call from Pope Benedict XVI, imparting a papal blessing. We wish the entire team, the best of luck and look forward to their safe return. Did you see the launch on TV?  What do you think of Ron, Bill and Mark’s shots? Why not drop us a line and let us know.

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  1. Kevin Carter

    Interesting post, but the camera in the last picture in the NASA designed blimp is a D2X.

  2. Anders

    the last picture is not a D3, but D2x !

  3. Ton

    Hi Tom, nice post.. definitely nice to see how those images are obtained. But are you sure the camera in the NASA housing is a D3? it looks more like a D2Xs to me because it has the little white sensor on top of the prism.. And NASA still uses a mix of D2Xs’s and D3’s for their recordings. Excellent shots!



  4. Alex

    Hello guys,

    great shots! I have one question refering to the last picture of the D3 in that “astronautic dress”.
    Is this a special version of a D3 designed for NASA? Because you can see that ambient light sensor on the prism, same like the D2 series has.

    Regards from Germany

  5. Bullsnot

    The “blimp” wearing camera in the last image looks like a D2 series camera with its white balance light sensor at the top front of the viewfinder housing, visible through the opening cut for it, not a D3.

  6. Bullsnot

    Also, a full frame (FX) camera like the D3 would likely show severe vignetting using that lens with the blimp protruding that far out around the perimeter of the lens… Another clue that this is a D2 series (DX) camera with a crop sensor.

  7. BellevilleGuy

    The ambient light sensor on the last picture makes it look more like a D2Xs than a D3.

  8. Zach

    Jealous of the gear, and even more jealous of the incredible shots you can only get with a Nikon.

  9. Michael

    I noticed in the last photo of the D3 in the “NASA designed blimp” that it has the wb indicator from the D2X showing, what gives?

  10. Joe

    that last camera in the photo is a D2 series, no?

  11. John Richards

    Hi, Great article. I am wondering how much damage (if any) the cameras have after launch with them being so close.



  12. Barbu

    Sorry, but in the last pic there is *no* D3 in the blimp. See the external whitebalance sensor on the pentaprism hump? The blimp even has a special hole for it.
    You might wanna revise your data and the identification in the text; it’s a D2h or D2x.

  13. huybert

    Last picture is not a D3, but a D2 series camera (little white dot on top of the viewfinder)

  14. Jean Jacques Fabien

    This is something I’d love so much doing. I have three Nikon cameras (D50, D90 and D7000) and work a lot on remote shooting mainly for landscape and birds. But astronomy is my passion and it’s incredible how nowdays, with digital cameras, we can take pictures of the sky (planets, milky way and deep sky) where about 20 years ago, only very costly equipment could be used for such.
    Anyway, great shots and great work.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Jean Jacques Fabien

  15. Tom // I AM NIKON

    Several of our eagle-eye readers asked a question about whether it was actually a D3, or rather a D2X, which is mentioned in the post.

    We got in touch with the photographer Bill Pekala, whose images and equipment were featured, to double check with him. Bill confirmed that while NASA is currently using the D3 camera, this blanket is definitely the D2X blanket and camera for demonstration; the thermal blanket presently used for the D3 was under construction at the time and does not have the hole in the top for the ambient light sensor. Other than the hole on top the blankets are identical.

    Well done to you guys who spotted it!