Five years ago today, on April 5th, 2010 at 6:21am, I had the privilege of photographing the final night launch of the US Space Shuttle program, STS-131.
This launch marked the penultimate flight for the Space Shuttle Discovery – and was also the last Shuttle launch to ever take place at night.
Set against a spectacular pre-dawn sky, it was one of the most photogenic Shuttle launches in history. As the Sun came up over the Eastern horizon the high-altitude plume from Discovery’s main engines was lit with a remarkably colourful glow. It was extremely dramatic from my photo station across the water from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, but was also visible well downrange, as the Shuttle blasted along over several hundred miles of the US East Coast.
Only eight and a half minutes later – as I was still packing up my photo gear – Discovery was already in space, and would soon heading for its rendezvous with the International Space Station.
The image above is not the greatest, but it was a cool moment to witness in person. What is it?
Well, 15 minutes before the Shuttle launched, NASA announced that we should look up, because the International Space Station was passing overhead.
I hadn’t even thought about this, but it totally made sense that the target for this Shuttle launch would pass right over us. It was after all, what the Shuttle would be chasing! It was cool to look up and see that little spot of light gliding across the pre-dawn sky, and it was very picturesque to see it passing so close to the waxing gibbous Moon. At that very moment a little chill ran down my spine. For a split second I was transported back in time – to July, 1969 – when the target for another launch from this facility was that distant world.
After two weeks in orbit, Discovery landed safely once again at the Kennedy Space Center. This mission would mark the longest flight ever for the Space Shuttle Discovery.
It would be hard to believe that five years have passed since I photographed that launch, were it not for another memory from that same day…
While I was waiting for the launch to take place I remember getting my first in-person look at the Apple iPad, which had been released just two days earlier in the US. Thinking about that makes it a lot easier to believe this really did happen five long years ago!