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The wonder of the Space Shuttle

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John Post space shuttle 115

Manhattan Beach photographer John Post and STS-115 on launch pad 39B. September 2005. Photo by Suzanne Post

by John Post

As they’ve already seen in Washington, D.C., and New York City, Los Angeles is in for quite a unique treat.

When the space shuttle Endeavour is flown into LAX on Friday, and then in October rolled through the streets of L.A. to its final resting place near the Coliseum, all of Los Angeles will be witness to an “Experience of (a) Vision.”

The spectacle before landing of the slow and low “piggy-back” fly-around of L.A., with the shuttle riding atop its 747 carrier plane, will be a wondrous “Oh my” moment of technological splendor.

When the shuttle is rolled down the fifteen-mile route to the museum, it will also be the first time for many people to see firsthand and up-close a space shuttle’s actual size. Most of them will be stunned and in awe of the scale of this flying machine that the USA had hurled into space and back twenty-five times.

I will be watching more from a goodbye-to-a-friend perspective and wondering what America is going to do next, now that it has shelved its ability to put humans into space? Will a new vision arise?

Growing up in the Southern California of the 1960s, the space industry was all around (my high school, Aviation, was next to “STL,” soon to be “TRW,” the leading satellite makers back then). In those times, the country was set on going to the moon, so visions of possibilities through the use and creativity of technology was the discussion (besides Vietnam). I was aware of the happenings on the space front and early-on was a believer in the future of man’s explorations off the planet.

In 1969, a month after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, I had my first visit to Kennedy Space Center, where humans had left the Earth.

With a wonder about the universe, and a base knowledge of physics and astronomy, I have always been a space buff. For the past 40 years I have been following the accomplishments of NASA, and since the early ‘80s I have watched on the NASA channel the flights, spacewalks, satellite deployments, and ISS (International Space Station) assembly, and the many other amazing achievements of the space shuttles.

In 1995, having watched NASA events for 14 years on TV, I got to have my first big time space “Wow” with STS-79.

I had gone to Edwards AF Base several times to see a shuttle landing, but I had always wanted to photograph a space shuttle launch.

In fall of 1995, a photo trip to Florida coincided with a launch. Using my professional photography credentials, I would see if I could get media passes for the press site for the launch of STS-79. I applied and got them.

The launch at the cape was on the back end of my trip. I arrived at Cocoa Beach several days prior to the early morning launch. For the next three days I attended the many close-up experiences allowed the press, from launch pad photo ops to media briefings with NASA managers, astronauts, and the hard core “space press,” many who I admired and had watched for years on NASA TV. A real special treat on that first launch experience was attending the 2:30 a.m. “walk out.” Selected press were taken out to photograph the astronauts when they emerged, suited up and waving, before hastily getting into the Astrovan for the ride to the shuttle and launch into space. With all these unique sensory experiences going on, I was like a kid in a candy store!

The 5:30 a.m. launch of STS-79, space shuttle Atlantis, to the Russian Mir space station, lit up the night sky as if it were daylight. Fifteen seconds later the sound waves flowed across the press site only three miles away with a rolling thunderous and crackling sound and with an ever-growing decibel count until the shuttle was 50 miles away and the dark of night again settled over the cape along with a visceral sensation of what just happened. A closing bonus to that first launch was seeing the shuttle go overhead in the dawning sky 90 minutes later as we headed back to Cocoa Beach. My first live shuttle launch was in the books and I knew then that one was not going to be enough.

Since that first live launch in 1995 I have had the good fortune and privilege to have photographed a total of five space shuttle launches (two nighttime and three daytime) from the press site at Kennedy Space Center, the last being STS-135, July 8, 2011, the last space shuttle launch ever.

Ironically, all the launches I have seen have happened to be space shuttle Atlantis, so I have a special attachment to that shuttle.

Each launch had its own unique touch. At STS-86 (another night launch), Tom Hanks was in the pressroom; at the time he was working on the movie “Apollo 13.” STS-106 in 2001 was my first daytime launch, STS-115 in 2005 turned out to be the longest countdown in the shuttle program’s history, among other firsts, and of course STS-135 in 2011, the final launch.

Unlike my other four launch experiences that were sparsely attended, the last space shuttle launch STS-135, on July 8, 2011, was attended by well over 2000 media folks from around the world. It was heavily overcast and damp as dawn broke over the media site on launch day. Lighting was bad but there was plenty of excitement around. The five minute launch window opened at 11:23 a.m. and after a short 30 second mechanical delay, STS-135, the last flight of the USA space shuttle program, lifted off pad 39A and into history, a melancholy end to an era.

Shuttle Enterprise went to New York City, the Discovery went to the Smithsonian, and Atlantis will stay at Kennedy Space Center (which means I’ll have to go visit my special shuttle friend in Florida). Endeavor arrives in Los Angeles. This fall I will be there to see the shuttle rolling through the streets, not just to see a shuttle again but to witness the jaw-dropping awe on the faces of the citizenry who may have never seen a shuttle launch on TV, and who will now be witnessing the size and iconic scale of one of humanity’s greatest technological wonders, an achievement of vision when we dream big and reach for the stars. ER



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