Photographing Shuttle Discovery (part 1)


On Tuesday April 17, 2012 I woke up early and drove into Chantilly, VA to try to be part of the historic arrival of the Space Shuttle Discovery. This was a decision I made when I first heard she would be flying in on the back of a 747 and I knew I wanted to get to see this historic moment.

When I learned that the shuttle would be flying around Washington DC I was conflicted about where I should go to get my once in a lifetime shots.

Unfortunate family events meant that I couldn’t spend any time planning or scouting locations in downtown DC to try to get my pictures, so I went with my fallback plan. I decided to go to the National Air & Space Museum in Chantilly, VA to see it as it came in for a landing. I arrived early (as in 5 minutes before the announced opening of the parking lot) and the place was already packed.

I found a spot up a hill between the museum and the Washington-Dulles International Airport. When one of the curators of the museum decided to see the shuttle from right next to me I knew I had picked a good spot.

But the prime seating seemed to be on the museum roof (and above the observation tower) where quite the crowd had gathered.

Because the actual flight plans were kept secret (for security reasons) I had no idea what the day would hold. Lucky for me plenty of people around me brought radios to keep track of the shuttles progress and I was thrilled to learn that Discovery would be making it’s first appearance at the Museum. I’m guessing that the Air & Space Museum had a lot of VIP’s in attendance so the museum was a logical place to begin her tour of Washington DC.

The crowd swelled and progress reports made their way around the crowd. I started to hear people saying thing like: “It’s early” or “it’s 10 minutes away” and the buzz grew as everyone noticed that there were no airplanes anywhere in the sky. The airspace was completely cleared for Discovery (except for a few helicopters hovering above the crowd).

And then we all got our first look at Discovery off in the distance.

There was no mistaking the unique silhouette of an airplane with something large on its back. Everyone around me pointed and the excitement grew as we all said to ourselves “she’s here… this is really happening”.

Discovery continued to make its way across the horizon, seemingly flying away from us. When she disappeared behind the museum I wondered if that was all I would get before she made her historic landing.

It turns out Discovery had to make a wide turn before flying by the museum. When she reappeared everyone began pointing again and people throughout the parking lot began cheering. Discovery was coming directly at me.

I watched Discovery approach through my cameras viewfinder and I was zoomed out to 200mm. As she got closer I attempted to zoom back down to keep Discovery as large as possible without cutting anything off. I fired off burst after burst until Discovery was too big for my viewfinder. It was then that I dropped the camera from my eye and I saw her right above me. She was absolutely massive. She was breathtakingly beautiful. Everyone around me was cheering and I realized that I was cheering as well. The feeling among the crowd was one of jubilation and I was there adding to the sense of being someplace special seeing history with this particular group of people.

Discovery was now flying directly over what was about to become her new home and I’m sure she noticed the huge crowd that came to welcome her. This was a very special moment and I couldn’t believe I was there to see it with my own eyes.

After Discovery passed almost directly over my head I watched as she flew away from me. I brought my camera back to my eye and I snapped off a few more images from this alternate angle. In the back of my mind I knew that people may not be interested in the rear view shots, but I knew if I was going to tell a story with pictures I’d need to get a shot of her flying away.

After Discovery passed from view everyone around me burst into applause. Anyone with a camera started to review their LCDs to see if they got a good shot. Big smiles accompanied people saying: “check this picture out”. Small groups formed all around me and I even had a small group of my own.

The excitement began to die down a bit but not too much. Discovery would be coming back soon.

Click here to read Photographing Shuttle Discovery (part 2)

4 thoughts on “Photographing Shuttle Discovery (part 1)

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