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Road to Seeing: Photographer Dan Winters on Aerospace

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Photographer Dan Winters explains his love of the NASA space program and documents how he photographed the final flights of the space shuttles Discovery, Endeavor, and Atlantis in this excerpt from his book, Road to Seeing.
From the book

Fascination with the sciences has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Having grown up in the ’60s and ’70s, my dreams were filled with the optimism and naiveté of the US space program. Back then, one could walk down the street and ask a passerby to name an astronaut; chances are that with even a vestigial knowledge of the space program and its goals, that individual could name one of our space heroes. Despite the overwhelming availability to access information today, and the general consensus that the unknown is now known, a litany of distractions has moved the public away from the dreams of exploration, and the current NASA roster remains largely unknown. The public has become more engaged in the droll of reality television than with the mysteries of the deep and the wonders of the heavens.

I was recently studying a wonderful photograph of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, and I remember feeling a sense of solace and affirmation that the large questions are still being asked. It is my opinion that the pursuit of pure science represents humanity at its best, and remains the most optimistic expression of mankind’s true passion.

One remarkable aspect of my profession is that the photographic process can be applied to virtually any subject. It acts, then, as a diverse calling card, one that has allowed me to access places and things that would not be available to me otherwise. I’m at home working with scientists and engineers, and many of my most memorable projects relate to the topics of aerospace and space exploration. I have photographed everything from the Mars rover Curiosity and her test area in the Mojave, to Neil Armstrong’s lunar suit to portraits of luminaries like Buzz Aldrin and visionaries like Elon Musk.

There is considerable civic apathy toward space exploration that I believe stems from mankind’s having successfully achieved an initial exploration of the moon, and the waning support from the erroneous belief that the mission had been completed, when in fact it had only just begun. The final lunar landings were the product of nearly two decades of milestones, which furthered our knowledge of the physical limitations of spaceflight. Each of these small victories brought the reality of a lunar mission one step closer.

These challenges began with a high-altitude balloon program in the mid-’50s, in which data was gathered on the biophysical effects of sustaining life in rarified environments. The program, codenamed MISS (Man In Space Soonest), was carried out with little pomp and circumstance. The pinnacle moment was Project Excelsior, in which 32-year-old test pilot Joseph Kittinger, sat in a cramped gondola for 90 minutes while ascending to an altitude of 102,000' before jumping into the void. He fell back to Earth for over four minutes before opening his parachute. The feat would go unchallenged until 2012, when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner trumped Kittinger’s record with a jump from a staggering 127,852', an altitude of over 24 miles. Baumgartner became the first human being to travel faster than the speed of sound while outside of a vehicle. From their seat of honor, both Kittinger and Baumgartner saw the Earth’s horizon spherically, rather than as a flat plane.

While the public knowledge of NASA’s exploits with balloons was scant, the first manned space project, Project Mercury, became a public spectacle. Astronauts graced magazine covers and appeared on talk shows and game shows with such frequency that they became celebrities. The country had “space fever” and congress kept writing checks. Each Mission was intended to collect data and provide astronauts with real situation training. Project Gemini followed project Mercury and then came Apollo.

Apollo represented the “Big Game,” and the eyes of the world were upon it. I can vividly recall the launch of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the moon.

On July 26, 1972, as the Apollo program was coming to a close, NASA awarded aerospace giant Rockwell International the coveted contract to build the Space Transportation System. Thus, the space shuttle program was born.

After a heralded start, the program seemed to flounder, and failed to capture the spirit of the public. Two catastrophic failures, as well as NASA’s inability to establish a clear vision, was taking its toll. One of the program’s low points, in my opinion, was when the crew of Space Shuttle Flight 19 (STS-51F) conducted the “Pepsi Challenge” in space. This test, a Madison Avenue ploy, pitted Coca-Cola against Pepsi in a dead heat. Coke won.

With launches costing up to $450 million each, Congress began viewing this enterprise as a bottomless pit. When I was working at Cape Kennedy, I spoke with an accountant who was employed by NASA during the Apollo era. He recounted that money was being spent so feverishly at that time that they were rounding up to the nearest million. Whether an embellishment or not, it illustrates the urgency of that era.

Many of the early shuttle missions involved the deployment of commercial communications satellites, as well as top-secret DOD missions. The steep cost of each launch made it clear to clients that, as a commercial venture, the shuttle was not economically viable. Businesses soon favored conventional launches aboard Russian and ESA launch vehicles, which were considerably more affordable.

The saving grace for the shuttle program came in the form of the International Space Station (ISS). The shuttle had found a home with the ISS, and a mission in which she could shine. She fulfilled her destiny as she transported the lion’s share of the station’s components, one at a time, into orbit. Like some orbital erector set, shuttle and ISS crewmembers assembled the station, piece by piece. After completion in 2012, the shuttle was, for the most part, relegated to crew and resupply missions to the ISS, which are better suited to Russian Soyuz craft, and much less expensive. After 30 years and over 500 billion miles traveled in space, collectively, NASA announced, in mid-2010, that the remaining three orbiters were to be retired. Each of the three was to make one final flight before becoming relics of a more optimistic era. Once the NASA press office released the information to the public, I immediately felt that a cohesive photographic record should be made of each of the final three launches.

I had photographed John Glenn’s return to space aboard STS-95 in October of 1998. My father in law, Ken Fouts, a legendary television director, was covering the event for PBS, NASA and Harris Corporation, using Hi-Definition equipment that was yet to become the industry standard in the US. Through his connections at NASA he was able to provide me with ringside seats. The spectacle had a profound and lasting effect on me, and I was eager to document the program to a greater extent.

As a journalist I have spent a significant amount of time discussing potential story ideas with many insightful art directors and photo editors in the magazine field. When the shuttle program was nearing its end, it became evident that many of the people employed by NASA, as well as private contractors involved with the program, would soon be out of work.

While the launch facilities are at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA is headquartered in Houston, Texas. Knowing that the Texas economy would be affected by such widespread housecleaning, I called TJ Tucker at Texas Monthly and we discussed the visual possibilities and landed on a specific approach: I would photograph the shuttle as though it were a portrait. I wanted to honor this vehicle as the sacred vessel that it was. I hoped I could capture the intensity of the launch in a way no individual could experience it outside of the photographic realm. Certain events are imperceptible as we are moving fluidly through our lives. This is truly a beautiful aspect of photography. Photographs are a rare expression of stillness.

I felt the series should be chronological, documenting the controlled chaos of the launch from the moment the main engine started until the shuttle was no longer visible to the eye, roughly a two-minute timeframe. The reality of this project was driven by passion alone. It was inspired by a confidence born not from ego, but from years of perseverance in the face of daunting and challenging obstacles, both technically and emotionally.

Any government agency can be tough to deal with, and NASA is no exception. Finding allies within NASA, like Candrea Thomas and Ken Thornsley, along with Ivette Rivera-Aponte at Kennedy Space Center, relieved much of the stress. I presented my proposal and they agreed to help me execute it. I also contacted veteran launch photographer Ben Cooper to pick his brain regarding the technical aspects of the project.

I had a group of sound triggers handmade for each of the cameras that I was positioning around the pad. The triggers are wired to the cameras and programmed to power them up shortly before the launch window opens. The cameras begin their firing sequence as the deafening main engines ignite. The rigs nearest to the pad, a mere 700 feet in some cases, must be very low to the ground. Sandbags exceeding 100 pounds are placed on the tripod legs to prevent vibration. Screw augers are set and tie-down straps are required to add further stability. Cameras set further back still require the same anti-vibration set-up as those closest to the pad. The massive pressure wave generated by the shuttle’s eight million pounds of thrust, not to mention the ear-splitting sound, would kill a person if they were in the same proximity as the cameras. This brings us back to the thought presented earlier, about photography’s inherent ability to show us what we alone can’t see.

In addition to the cameras on the pad, I manually operated two cameras from the press site, three miles away. The cameras around the pad are set the day before launch. For the Discovery (STS-133) launch, I set 11 cameras—all 35mm DSLRs with varying focal length lenses—at pre-determined positions in the pad area. I drew a detailed set of storyboards depicting the specific image each camera would capture in order to create a unique photograph for each page of the layout.

Because the shuttle’s launch trajectory is a given, I was able to determine where to place the cameras to document each stage of the launch. The reality of such an enterprise is that I get an average of 5 or 6 images of the shuttle itself as it passes through the frame, and then several hundred shots of smoke.

At 4:53 p.m. on February 24, 2011, Discovery lifted off her pad, thus beginning her final voyage into space. The anticipation and energy prior to a launch is electric. My son Dylan helped me set cameras on STS-133 and was by my side as the spectacle unfolded before us. It was a textbook launch on a beautiful day. The shuttle was visible for a full two minutes, at which point the solid rocket boosters burn out and the exhaust trail fades into the sky. It’s difficult to describe the beauty of the event, and as I looked at my son’s gaze skyward, I was brought to tears. Once the shuttle was out of sight, he turned to me and told me that his life was forever changed.

NASA technicians usually require several hours immediately following a launch to issue the “all clear” on the pad. Launch complex 39A is the same complex that was used for most Apollo missions, including the Apollo11 mission to the moon. As we approached the pad to retrieve our equipment, I became overwhelmed by the profound sense of connection I felt to the physical space I inhabited in that moment. Never as a boy would I have dreamt that I would not only occupy this hallowed place, but that I would be there in an official capacity. I was further moved by the fact that I was now sharing a deep love of mine with my son.

Using digital equipment has, in many cases, been a true gift. The image quality and instant results are extremely helpful when doing this type of work. The equipment functioned flawlessly, and I was able to capture the moments I had envisioned.

Mia Diehl, director of photography at Fortune, worked with me on the Endeavor (STS-134) launch. As things moved forward, I got clearance from NASA to shoot inside the orbiter. It was such a rare honor to gain access to the Discovery flight deck and payload bay. I was touched while listening to the stories of Bill Powers, who had for years been in charge of the shuttle’s flight deck. Once again, my allies at NASA, along with my calling card from Fortune, had paved the way. I also witnessed Atlantis being prepped for her final journey inside of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building.

Endeavor’s launch was originally scheduled for April 29, 2011, but was scrubbed with just over two minutes left on the clock, due to a problem with the orbiter’s auxiliary power unit. Each shuttle launch that involves a rendezvous with the ISS has a specific window of time within which to launch. If there are any technical problems that delay the launch and that 10-minute window passes, the launch is rescheduled. For the Endeavor shoot, Dylan and I had set cameras in unbearable heat and humidity. It was disheartening to have to go back out to the pad the following day to retrieve equipment after having spent an entire day setting it up.

The launch was rescheduled and I flew down to the Cape and repeated the process, setting up nine remote cameras and two at the press site. Once again, the humidity was so oppressive and severe that I had extreme difficulty seeing not only through my glasses, but also through the cameras’ optics. To add insult to injury, the pad is situated in a swamp infested with mosquitos. In spite of the difficulties, there was no other place on Earth I would have rather been in that moment.

There is an omnipresent calm and serenity as the impending ferocity of the launch approaches. As Endeavor’s engines came to life, a shift in the wind carried the plume of smoke from her engines south, directly into the path of my cameras closest to the pad. They were smoked out seconds after engine start. I was initially disappointed, but once I was able to sit with the few frames that I was able to capture I found a great beauty in these photographs and now count them among my favorites.

I worked with Kira Pollack, director of photography at Time, on the launch of Atlantis (STS-135), the final launch of the shuttle program. I set 11 cameras at the pad and two at the press site. In my excitement, I made the comical rookie mistake of forgetting to put a card in one of the cameras, and thus missed a shot I’d never attempted before. All went smoothly otherwise. It was a spectacular launch and a fitting end to a 30-year journey. While at the Cape, I was able to spend time photographing the processing facilities of the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME).

It was at this time that I realized the amount of imagery I’d collected on my four visits to Kennedy could comprise a unique book. I knew I had made more images than could ever be printed by the publications I was representing, and I was aware that the opportunity would never again present itself. But in the end, I wasn’t convinced I had enough strong images to create a volume worthy of its subject.

Around this time, I was working with David Hamrick, the director of the University of Texas Press, on a book that was ultimately derailed as it was nearing completion. My wife suggested I look at the shuttle photographs and assess again whether or not I had a book. After combing through the work, I felt if I shot a few more images of subject matter related to the shuttle, I would be in good shape. Dave supported the project, so I began the task of finalizing the images.

The processing facilities for spacesuits, as well as Mission Control Center, are located at NASA headquarters in Houston. I made several trips to Johnson Space Center to finish the project, focusing mainly on the spacesuit processing facility.

The Apollo mission control room housed in building 30 at JSC looks as it did on television when I was a boy. It remains frozen in time from the lunar landings, and is a National Historic Site. After some inquiries, I found that it had been used on the shuttle program until 1998. Having established a shuttle program connection, Dylan and I drove to Houston and spent three hours together photographing the holiest of holies. It was a prodigious moment and one of the full-circle experiences I’ve had so many times in my career.

With all of the images in hand, the book itself came together smoothly. I prefer to work with physical objects, so we printed out 4" x 5" chips of all of the images, and by taping them to a wall at my studio, I was able to create a sequence I was happy with. I did most of the design work myself and received excellent feedback and support from Derek George at UT Press. Derek is a talented designer, and his contribution to the project was invaluable.

In the end, as I reflect on my time working on this project, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for all of the souls whose paths I crossed, and for the trust and support of the people who helped to make a boyhood dream a reality.

Figure 1 Neil Armstrong, Lunar Suit | Washington, D.C., 2012

Figure 2 Mars Rover Curiosity | Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena , California, 2012

Figure 3 Mars Rover Testing Area | Mojave Desert, 2012

Figure 4 John Glenn ’s Mercury Suit | Washington, D.C., 2001

Figure 5 Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) Interior | Cape Canaveral, 2011

Figure 6 SR -71 Cockpit | Oakland , 2010

Figure 7 Neil Armstrong’s Lunar Glove | Washington, D.C., 2012

Figure 8 Discovery Flight Deck | Cape Canaveral, 2011

Figure 9 Rubber Stamps | Johnson Spac e Center, Houston, 2012

Figure 10 Control Console, Mission Control | Johnson Space Center, Houston, 2012

Figure 11 Solid Rocket Booster (SRB ) Ignition | Cape Canaveral, 2011

Figure 12 Discovery Main Engine Start | Cape Canaveral, 2011

Figure 13 Endeavour Passes Through the Clouds | Cape Canaveral, 2011

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