Shooting the Space Shuttles

Ben Cooper combines photography with rocket science.

An Atlas 5 rocket
An Atlas 5 rocket launches on the world's first mission to Pluto, with the New Horizons space probe atop. New Horizons will get to Pluto in mid-2015 after a decade long journey. See more of Ben's photos here: http://www.launchphotography.com/Launch_Photos.htmlBen Cooper

Popular Photography first caught up with Ben Cooper back in 2008 when he was shooting with film cameras and sacrificing his lenses for the sake of the shot. Since then he has gone digital (for the most part) and racked up some impressive new work that somehow takes an epic event like shuttle launch and makes it even more impressive.

What is your process like on launch day?
Shooting a launch requires some preparation and some knowledge if you want to get the right shot, especially for night launches. The real challenge is the remote cameras; setting them up at the pad a day or two before sometimes, and leaving them there to get the shot. This is the big process, taking hours sometimes, and requiring a lot of planning. Sometimes I spend more time than others, especially if I am after a real particular angle like the fisheye seen here. I had to get special permission to set up that close.

How much of a challenge are the ever-changing launch schedules?
The schedules are always changing, so I have to be prepared to shift days and work around the launches and other events. I have to set up cameras for several days of launch attempts, in case we cannot come out and check on them, which sometimes happens. It's not just battery life, but also preventing pre-launch misfires and, of course, protecting from weather.

What kind of gear are you currently packing?
I've got two D200s still that I use for all my handheld stuff. And quite a bit of Nikkor and other lenses from 10mm to 400mm. For the remote cameras, I've been using Canons for the most part. It could be anything from a 10D to a 50D. I generally share equipment with a couple of friends so we make the most of it.

Are you currently gearing up for your next shuttle launch?
The next launch, the STS-131, is slated for April 5. Then STS-132, the last flight of Atlantis, is in late May. Real planning for what shots I want has not begun. I just had two weeks of non-stop events that included a trip to Utah to photograph the last shuttle SRB test. In a couple of weeks I will begin deciding what photos I want of the next launch. Although, if STS-131 launches on April 5, it's schedule for 47 minutes before sunrise and could provide a beautiful blue-black wide angle from the viewing sites.

Have you been following the recent astronauts on Twitter?
Yes, I have been following Soichi Noguchi and the other Twitter astronauts, but have never chatted with him. The commander of the next shuttle mission, interestingly, is a photographer. He is making his second flight. Sometimes when he travels to KSC in Florida for training he can be seen with a camera.

Shuttle Atlantis
Shuttle Atlantis launches September 9, 2006.Ben Cooper
Atlas 5 Rocket time lapse
A time lapse with multiple exposures captures star trails and the launch of an Atlas 5 rocket with a communications satellite on October 10 2007. The purple is light pollution from the orange streetlights in the area. This photo won third place in the Aviation Week 2008 photo contest, the biggest aviation photo contest.Ben Cooper
Shuttle Endeavour launches on STS-132
Shuttle Endeavour launches on STS-132, March 11, 2008.Ben Cooper
shuttle and the xenon lights
The night before STS-120 launches in October 2007, this HDR image captures the shuttle and the xenon lights, which the camera cannot normally expose for without special filters.Ben Cooper
A time lapse taken for NASA
A time lapse taken for NASA (this photo is not copyrighted) captures the Shuttle Discovery zooming into space on STS-128, August 28, 2009.Ben Cooper
Discovery hangs inside the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building
In a rare photo op taken February 22, the 12-story 100 ton Discovery hangs inside the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building (the world's fourth largest building) as it is lifted to be attached to the booster rockets for STS-131.Ben Cooper
Discovery hangs inside the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building
In a rare photo op taken February 22, the 12-story 100 ton Discovery hangs inside the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building (the world's fourth-largest building) as it is lifted to be attached to the booster rockets for STS-131.Ben Cooper
Delta 4 Heavy
The first place winner for space in the same contest and my most popular image taken (Popular Photography published it as the backstory in December 2009). A film camera was used for this shot (last time I used film to date) because of the chance it would be destroyed. Delta 4 Heavy lifts off November 10 2007 with a military satellite. It's the largest rocket in the world at 24 stories tall, the angle on this Heavy launch really did it for me. The lens was destroyed, but the camera worked...see more: http://www.launchphotography.com/Delta_4-Heavy_DSP-23_camera.htmlBen Cooper
Space Shuttle Discovery blasts off on STS-114
The Space Shuttle Discovery blasts off on STS-114 on July 26, 2005, on the first mission after the Columbia disaster, which happened nearly three-years before.Ben Cooper
Atlas 5 rocket launches
An Atlas 5 rocket launches on the world's first mission to Pluto, with the New Horizons space probe atop. New Horizons will get to Pluto in mid-2015 after a decade long journey. See more of Ben's photos here: http://www.launchphotography.com/Launch_Photos.htmlBen Cooper
Shuttle Endeavour launches on STS-132
Shuttle Endeavour launches on STS-132, March 11, 2008.Ben Cooper
STS-130 on February 8, 2010
STS-130 on February 8, 2010. Special permission was attained to set this remote camera up closer than ever to the 19-story, 7.5 million pounds of thrust shuttle Endeavour (about 700 feet).Ben Cooper
Discovery rolls out to the launch pad on top of the crawler transporter
Discovery rolls out to the launch pad on top of the crawler transporter and launch platform for STS-114's return to flight in April 2005. The 4.5 mile trip took a lengthy 12 hours and neared the pad at dusk.Ben Cooper
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