The Last Flights of Space Shuttle Discovery

The web has been flooded with pictures and stories of the Space Shuttle Discovery’s move from Florida to its permanent home at the Udvar Hazy Center at the Smithsonian in Virginia.  I was there for the arrival in Virginia, I was also there for the Discovery’s last launch into space as well as its last landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Discovery was the third operational shuttle after the Columbia and Challenger.  Construction started in August of 1979 and it was completed in August of 1983.  The first flight was August 30, 1984 (STS-41).  The last flight was launched on February 24, 2011 and recovered on March 9, 2011.  During her 27 year career, she flew 39 missions, traveling 149 million miles, completing 5,830 orbits over 365 days in space.  Discovery flew more flights than any other Shuttle and flew four times in the year 1985 alone.  The Discovery flew the first flight after the Challenger disaster and launched the Hubble Space Telescope.  The longest flight was 15 days and it made the final docking with the Mir Space Station.

The Discovery replaced the Shuttle Enterprise at Udvar Hazy.  The Enterprise (which only flew atmospheric missions) was never flown in space and should be transferred to the Intrepid Museum in the coming weeks.

I was there for the last launch of the Discovery on February 24, 2011 in Titusville, FL.   I skipped the “Turn Basin” at NASA (standing near the Vehicle Assembly Building with the rest of the media only 3 miles from the launch) and instead shot from a carefully scouted location on the Indian River in Titusville 12.25 miles away for a wider shot.  The launch was spectacular and the angle was different.  There were eagles that nested in the area flying around.  After the launch we went back home to Tennessee.

I returned to Florida for the landing on March 9, 2011.  I’d never shot a shuttle landing and didn’t get media credentials for it, so I planned to shoot the landing from the parking lot of the visitor center.  The landing was supposed to be from the south and the shuttle should pass close by.  Well, the best plans never seem to work and with 30 minutes to go to landing, the wind shifted.   I heard on the radio the approach was supposed to be from the north which meant no pictures.  I tossed all the gear (and Betsy too) in the van and headed to the causeway on the east side of Kennedy Space Center.   A crowd gathered quickly and within minutes after getting there the radio said Discovery was passing over the west coast of Florida.   Now, the other coast of Florida is at least 125 miles away, but at a speed of Mach 3 (say a mile every 2 seconds), it took about 2 minutes to cover the distance.

Some aircraft make distinct sounds; the Goodyear Blimp, a P-51, and C-5 are easy to distinguish by the sounds that they make.  The shuttle landing is another; all sonic booms have a double crack, one with the initial pressure rise from the nose of the aircraft and a second when the tail passes and the pressure returns to normal.  Normally the double boom isn’t noticeable, but the shuttle makes a very, very distinctive double boom to announce its arrival over the landing facility.  The approach starts at about 9000 feet and 425MPH and it descends about 9800 feet per minute to a landing touchdown speed of about 215MPH.

What all of this means is that when they announce the shuttle over the west coast of Florida; things happen very quickly.   Within 3 minutes the shuttle is on the ground.  There is the announcement, everyone looks, someone spots a reflection of the shuttle at 10,000’ and less than 60 seconds later it’s on a short final to land.  The runway is surrounded by trees and you can’t see the touchdown from the causeway.   Opportunities for photos are limited as the time is short, you have to be ready to shoot and do it now.

The final trip from Florida to Virginia was another story.  I started that trip with a dilemma.  I was going to Dayton to shoot the 70th anniversary ceremony for the Doolittle Toyko Raid.  This was supposed to be the last time the Raiders would get together and 20+ B-25s would be on hand.  So I arrived on Friday; it rained all day on Saturday; and I shot B-25s practicing at Urbana, Ohio on Sunday morning.  About lunch time I thought it was time to go and I should shoot the shuttle instead.  I left Dayton, stopped for the night in West Virginia and left on Monday morning for DC.

I figured the area around Dulles Airport was going to be a zoo (and it was, some photographers got stuck in traffic and didn’t get there in time), but I knew the shuttle would be making a couple laps around the “mall” (Capitol and national monuments) so I figured I’d catch it there.  I’ve been to DC dozens of times and decided the best place to shoot from was the parking garage at Arlington Cemetery.   I went there Monday afternoon and shoot pictures of aircraft landing at National Airport and picked the primary camera lens combination I was going to use (Canon 1DMK4 and a 300mm 2.8 Lens).

I went to a hotel about 6 air miles away and the fun started.  The Shuttle was to arrive at 10:30AM or so and fly the mall and then go to Dulles to land.  I got up, had breakfast, and left a bit before 9AM.  I thought LA got a bad rap for traffic and really used to think Chicago was worse.  Well, you’ve never been to DC (OK, eastern Virginia) you don’t know bad traffic.  It took me 50 minutes to get to Arlington (straight line distance 6 miles, probably less than 15 on the road).  During the trip, the radio said that the shuttle was ahead of schedule by at least 30 minutes.  Was it weather?  Was it to keep the terrorists, who would be gridlocked in traffic, from getting their shot at it?  Who cares, it was simply early.

I got to the garage about 9:45AM; took out the camera, the backup camera and was ready to fire a few test shots and the wind changed.   National Airport was landing the other direction.  The shuttle was supposed to fly the approach, which means I couldn’t really see it too good from there.  It was time to change plans and start the move to the Memorial Bridge about a mile away.  For those who know me; running isn’t something I like to do, but I moved swiftly to the bridge.   I was on the bridge for literally 30 seconds and looked over my shoulder and there it was; the 747 with the Discovery on board.    It flew within 400 yards of me, they flew several circuits around the mall, and made two nice close passes to where I was standing.  As you can see the shots were really magnificent.  By carefully matching the camera/lens with the distance to the subject, I got virtually full frame shots that were perfect.  No cropping here.

I stood there until we were sure that Discovery was on its way to Dulles Airport and went back to the car.  I wanted to stop at Dulles on the way back.  The traffic there was a real nightmare.  There were “Lot Full” signs up around the Museum and I almost by passed it, until I realized that they didn’t have time to change the signs and everyone was leaving.  So I went in.  I got a few shots of Discovery from a LONG ways away (the public was not allowed near it, I’d estimate 2 miles at least) and headed home.

The crowds at the landing were amazing, virtually blocking streets in the area.  The Memorial Bridge had 6 lanes of traffic of which at least 2 or 3 lanes were closed by people stopped for a look at Discovery.  There was a DC cop on a motorcycle trying to get them to move but without a lot of success.

The Space Shuttle Program was a real milestone in the exploration of space and development of technology that will advance science here on earth.  The Shuttle was a one of a kind vehicle and it will never be duplicated.  This was a final opportunity to see it with air under it’s wings.

Was it worth the 2 ½ days and 1000+ miles of driving to see the Discovery during its last flight?  Yup, well worth it, since I have a great story to tell.   I’d like to thank NASA for the Shuttle Program, Donna and Tony McFarr for helping me get spectacular launch photos over the years, and the taxpayers of the USA (of which I’m one) for funding the Space Shuttle Program to the tune of $196 Billion (2011 dollars) which works out to about $1.5 Billion per launch.  That’s money better spent than spending it on another war and is about the amount of money it takes to run the country for 18.6 days (in 2011).  It was a deal.


You can contact the author/ photographer Mark Hrutkay at TNMark@Me.Com.  All Photos Copyright Mark Hrutkay.



Mark Hrutkay

Mark has been a member of the International Association of Aviation Photographers (ISAP) for several years and attends all their events and seminars. He has won several awards for his work and has been published in several aviation magazines, domestic and foreign. You can contact Mark Hrutkay at TNMark@Me.Com.

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