America’s last space shuttle missions occurred in 2011, with the successful launches of Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis. Photojournalist Dan Winters captured these landmark events with incredible access to the NASA program in its final days.
For the photographs, Winters set up automatically controlled cameras at particular points around the launch pad (some as close as 700 feet from the launch) so he could capture the stunning takeoffs in incredible detail.
Winters has been fascinated with space shuttle launches since he first witnessed Astronaut John Glenn’s 1998 return to space in person and found it to be “visually unbelievable.”
“It’s one of those things that’s hard to describe or imagine until you see it,” Winters told Business Insider. “There’s a lot of anxiety because it’s such a controlled chaos and you know there’s a potential for failure … There are over two million parts on the shuttle and every single part has to have 100 per cent performance.”
Winters has collected his work from the project in a book called “Last Launch: Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis,” from University of Texas Press. It is available for purchase here. Here’s where you can see the space shuttles in person.
This is the space shuttle Endeavour, as it begins to launch for the final time in 2011:
When the launch sequence starts, the space shuttle sits on the launch pad for approximately six seconds, while the main engines build up their thrust.
In the seconds before liftoff, 300,000 gallons of water are dumped onto the launch pad to dampen the sound vibrations from the engines and rocket boosters. The water quickly evaporates in mist, as seen in this photo.
Once in flight, the space shuttle (in this photo, Atlantis) begins to roll 180 degrees to relieve stress on the shuttle’s wings and make it easier for the crew to pilot to their destination in orbit.
A mere 20 one seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle is no longer visible to people on the ground, says Winters.
This is Discovery’s payload bay where it stores all of its cargo for missions. For Discovery’s final flight in 2011, they brought modules for the International Space Station and a humanoid robot called Robonaut.
This is space shuttle Atlantis on its way to assembly before its final flight.
Prior to takeoff, NASA assembles the space shuttle, engines, and rocket boosters into the “space shuttle stack.” Winters took this photograph from the 26th floor of the building.
This is Discovery’s cockpit, or “flight deck.” During flight, the pilot sat on the right while the commander sat on the left.
This is one of the shuttle’s “main engines.” After the booster rockets are jettisoned mid-flight, the main engines accelerate the space shuttle from 3,000 miles per hour to 17,000.
This is Endeavour’s second-to-last launch. Winters used special settings on his camera to dramatize the launch, which he says was so bright and cloudy that it was hard for spectators to see.
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