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The Last Launch

Jul 5

In history, In The Field at 7:31am

Funny business, this. My career spun, substantially, on the first launch of the space shuttle, back in ’81. I was a staff shooter at ABC TV in NY, which was definitely an odd duck of a job. As a still shooter bound up in an organization whose reason to be was making moving pictures, I was often the odd man out, or certainly the last consideration. (It was good I got used to that feeling early in my career:-)

I got sent down to the Cape for ABC to photograph the test firing of Columbia’s engines, and to identify lens throws and positions, work out the credentialing path, and all that stuff you do to prep for a major media blowout. As it happened, Discover, the new Time Inc. science magazine, had a crew of three shooters down there, and all was not well with team Discover. Two of the team members came back to NY, and told their editor, “We need a new third. Hire McNally.”

I was already shooting for the magazine as a freelancer, so the photo editor had no qualms. She called me up and offered me the gig shooting launch and landing. It amounted to about two weeks of freelance day rates, which at the time was the princely sum of $250 per day. I walked into my boss’ office at ABC and quit.

In the early days of the launches and landings, I spent a lot of time in Cocoa Beach, Houston, and out in the desert of Edwards AFB, where they landed the first few. Cocoa at that point was a rusty old space town at the end of the Bee Line Expressway. We would ship roughly 40-50 cases of gear down, and pick ‘em up at air freight. Heavy tripods, wiring, rigging, long glass, 20 or so motor driven Nikons, timers, scopes, film, hi-speed Hulcher cameras, you name it. You shot multiple, multiple cameras, ’cause, as they say, once they light those SRBs (solid rocket boosters) that puppy’s goin’ somewhere, and you don’t want to come up empty.

It was exhausting, but fun, and there was a great sense of launch fever in those heady early days. We would stay in a dogshit Days Inn, eat shoe leather steaks at the Mousetrap, and listen to Shirl the Girl on the piano. One of our team, Hank Morgan, remains a friend to this day. He was a pro’s pro, and I learned much from him. Nothing he couldn’t do with a camera. He didn’t get rattled, which was an essential quality, shooting these launches. The rocket fires, the noise rolls along with the smoke plume, and, like a monster Roman candle, the spaceship climbs, achingly slow at first, towards the heavens. You are 2-3 miles away, on a tower, with a three camera platform, most likely with a 1,000mm, a six and a five on what was at that point, F2’s. You had a single handle push on the platform, and all three cameras would be wired into a foot pedal. Your job was to track with the longest lens. If you did that smoothly, the six hundred and the five hundred (effectively, your wide angles) would also stay on track. Hitch or bobble, you would never again find the shuttle in all that sky with 1000mm of glass clapped to your eye.

Seat of the pants ruled the day, for photogs, and, I suspect, NASA. I love odd shit, so one early morning, I was in hog heaven, photographing Challenger as it was towed through the streets of Palmdale, Ca.

You can’t make this stuff up, right? You look out your window, and there goes the space shuttle.

Down at Houston, I got to photograph a silica space shuttle tile. These conduct heat so poorly, they cover part of the shuttle’s exterior, protecting it from the high temps of re-entry. This tile, glowing hot and fresh from the oven, is being held by unprotected fingers, demonstrating its’ lack of heat transfer. Strange and remarkable stuff goes into this flying cargo ship.

The first landing was rough. Nobody knew what this thing would look like coming down out of space.  Dropping like a rock, approaching at an angle so steep the pilots were virtually looking straight down, the only thing we knew as shooters was that whatever happened would happen fast. I had knocked around doing conventions and political coverages, so the editor wanted me on the longest glass. It wasn’t the prime spot, but it was the spot from which you could track the whole shebang. I was on the roof of the old fire station at Edwards with an ancient 1200mm lens, which came in two parts that you screwed together. With the shade, it extended maybe 5-6′ from the camera, and it was a bear to focus in the best of conditions, much less through desert heat waves. I had the whole thing wrapped in aluminum foil, for fear the 100 plus degree heat would just melt it right into the roof.

And there it is. Close as I got, through 1200mm of ancient glass. The hard part was picking it out of the sky, ’cause it was, at first, just a glowing speck in a sea of blue. I had one camera on the lens, and another looped around my neck, ready to slam it on. (Remember, only thirty six exposures.) I did better later, when I took a large ABC news sticker I still had in my bag, slapped it onto the hood of my car and drove  past Edwards security right onto the runway. Having a TV sticker could get you lots of places back in the day.

Scouting Edwards for approach positions was fun. Miles of open desert, and they pretty much let us have the run of the place. Not that there was anything out there. Hank, driving his own rental car, gave me one of those twisted, “I’m about to do something really fun and stupid” looks and brought the hammer down out there in the big empty. I was in a Buick Regal, and had no choice but to respond. My problem was that I was driving into his dust cloud at about 110 mph and could see absolutely nothing. It occurred to me that this was not advisable when heard an enormous crack from under the car. Desperately looking around, I noticed my gas gauge plummeting. I had driven right over a large, pointed rock embedded in the desert, and  it basically plowed a furrow right through the gas tank. I pulled up and started yanking gear out of the trunk like the crazy fool I was and Hank, thankfully, circled back to pick me up.  We moved away from the vehicle as it was slowly encircled in a sea of gasoline. I called the rental company and told them their car had malfunctioned and I needed a new one, which they obliged me with. They in turn called me back about two days later to tell me they had yet to find my vehicle. I assured them it was out there, gulping a bit and wondering how I could finesse a Buick Regal on my expense account. I never heard back.

It has been, as they say, quite a ride….more tk….

56 Responses to “The Last Launch”

TuesdayTony says:

on July 5, 2011 at 7:49 am

Great story!

Ian Mckenzie says:

on July 5, 2011 at 7:56 am

As always Mr McNally, a wonderful read.
Thank you

David Kelly says:

on July 5, 2011 at 7:56 am

Beautiful images Joe with some great insights as always. It’ll certainly be a milestone in space travel history when Atlanta completes it

Robert says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:02 am

It’s with sad, mixed emotions to see this program come to an end. We can only hope “the next ride” will be something that we can all take pride in, as we have with this one and of those preceded it.

Thank you so much Joe, for sharing your experiences with us!


Andor says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:02 am

Amazing shots again Joe, thanks for sharing the even-more-amazing story of those!

Andy deBruyn says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:06 am

What a fun read!! It actually brings you back to what it was like. I remember those times when you could just walk out on just about any tarmac, take a bunch of pictures, and then get on your plane.

David Kelly says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:07 am

Beautiful images Joe and some great insights as always. I love the shot of the thermo tile (that really demonstrates, in visual lay terms, the amazing insulating properties of those tiles).
It’ll certainly be a milestone in the history of space travel when Atlanta completes it’s final flight and the space shuttle chapter is closed. A sad day indeed, having I’ve grown up watching the shuttle flights as a kid over here in the UK, but l look forward to seeing what NASA comes up with to replace the shuttle in the forthcoming years.

Darren says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:07 am

Awesome stuff! Great pics, greater story!

mark Coons says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:11 am

Very cool Joe! Thanks for sharing some of your experiences.

Kevin says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:11 am

As always Joe, you spin stories like a spider, effortlessly and entrap your readers.

JerseyStyle Photography says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:17 am

“….told them their car had malfunctioned…”


What’s fantastic about your posts are the details you remember…the Moustrap, Shirl the Girl…almost like you were taking notes, knowing that at some point in the distant future, you’d be resurrecting photos and would needed appropriate text to go along with them for an Internet thing called a “blog.”

Cool stuff.

Josh Liba says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:20 am

Pretty cool insights on the business and gear used for these assignments!

Talk about launching a career.

Awesome read. Thanks Joe.

Tristan says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:24 am

Interesting read Joe, sometimes I forget that you’ve experienced so much. Thanks for the reminder.

Dennis Pike says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:26 am

I am blown away by the things you have gotten to see, gotten to experience. This kind of thing sounds like so much fun… even the dogshit hotels and shoe leather steaks. I guess it takes a strange person to want to be a photographer in the first place. I can only hope that my career can leave me with half the stories that you have shared, and I can only assume the ones you share are only about 25-50% fo the stories you actually have. Thank you for being a continuing persoanl, professional, and artistic inspiration.

Kyle Jerichow says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:30 am

You know, now a days I wouldn’t think that you were such a wild kid…..and so blatant too, your car malfunctioned….


try getting away with that kinda shit today…I am sure you’ve not only tried but succeeded in amazing style as well.

Great read as always. Good luck with your assignment this week.

All the best,

ivan mendez says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:44 am

incredible and inspiring history ,i suposed the you hear this a lot , but i dont care
thanks joe for all that inspiration day by day , you teach me alot of thing , be creative and persistentand over all be humble thats the only way

thanks for sharing

regards from the caribean

ivan mendez (FoToGrAfIkA)

Pierre Jacobs says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:50 am

Cool story Joe. Love the details, like a Tom Waits song. Every word shines as your pics.

Azahari Reyes @ Jason says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:50 am

Nice stories Joe …

William Chinn says:

on July 5, 2011 at 9:01 am

The story teller done it again. Its amazing … you had talent for taking a picture even then.

Don Koehler says:

on July 5, 2011 at 9:01 am

I was there for the last Saturn 5 Apollo launch and also for the first shuttle launches. Best I had was a 400mm on an F2 body. Great thing about 36 exposures – you made every one count. Great story and photos Joe, as usual.

Rick Potts says:

on July 5, 2011 at 9:20 am

great stories

A friend renting a car did not want to purchase their insurance. The sales clerk was insistent so he finally gave in. He drove out the wrong way and shredded all four tires. He calmly walked back in, laid the keys on the counter, said, “thanks for the advice. I’ll be needing a new car.”

Stu Elwing says:

on July 5, 2011 at 9:20 am

Joe, what a GREAT addition to the blog! Back in those days, an old college buddy was an astronaut in the program–later a shuttle commander. Not only was everything in those days really different from now, but it was a HUGE matter to look better to the world than the Soviets did. You helped make that happen for this country. I LOVED the story! Thank you–and best wishes for huge success with the Nat Geo assignment.

Jon says:

on July 5, 2011 at 9:57 am

Joe, this is probably my favorite of all of your posts…so far. Keep ‘em coming! :)

Thank you for sharing so much, and so freely!

Chad goldman says:

on July 5, 2011 at 10:14 am

Love it.

Mike Neale says:

on July 5, 2011 at 10:27 am

Joe,…perhaps you should share your tear-sheet with Sir Richard B, (Virgin),…now is the time,…just a thought,…..;-)


Gerald Lim says:

on July 5, 2011 at 11:02 am

great story, Joe, keep em comin

Rob Byron says:

on July 5, 2011 at 11:07 am

Wonderful story Joe. Those are the times that we, as photographers, live for. I’m sad to see the end of this era of space travel but glad that our exploration of the heavens is not over.

Iden Ford says:

on July 5, 2011 at 11:32 am

Stunning photos and stories. You inspire us. Thank you!

Miles Morgan says:

on July 5, 2011 at 11:39 am

This is a cherished post. I remember all those stories like they were yesterday, and the trip you and Dad took down there made me want to be an astronaut. When it became clear that I was too tall and all together entirely too dumb for that, I veered wildly over to being an airline pilot. Those few weeks covering that story changed my life forever, and sent me on my career path. In other words, thanks for ruining my life. :)

I confess to wiping a few tears while reading this. One because of the hilarity of it all, but mostly because of the pride I have in my old man. He’s as great a Dad and a guy as he is a shooter. Thanks very much for the kind words. They read as pure gold to our family.

I’ve forwarded this to Hertz to see what the statute of limitations on your rental agreement was.



Miles Morgan (Hank’s son)

Lasse says:

on July 5, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Joe, love to read your stories. Hope to see you soon.


Jarle Aasland says:

on July 5, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Great stuff! I’ve covered a couple of Shuttle launches myself. Best time ever. Will you be there for the last one as well?

Kevin Glackmeyer says:

on July 5, 2011 at 1:13 pm

ahhhh memories. You could have a couple from Montgomery but your not here.

Rich Cave says:

on July 5, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Joe you bastard, it was you, dam you, that photo of the tile, I was 7 years old and dad bought me a weekly science magazine called Insight. Every week I had a copy, I loved the shuttle and all that stuff, one week I look at the front cover and there was the silica tile, that one shot solidified my interest in imagery and photography.

I never knew it was your photo, that magazine was very expensive and we were dirt broke, Dad however was determined that I get an education, and it was the era of the Shuttle, I grew up your photos. All these years later to find out it was you Joe that got me into photography.

All the hairs on the back of my neck have stood up.

Joe you have no idea what you started in a seven year old boy when you took those photos.

Many many thanks


Gale says:

on July 5, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Dear Joe,

Great work.
What a road you have traveled.

Love your write up. Yep, I lived Shuttle Mania..Great days.

I live in Spaceport USA as it has been termed,for over 30 years. Seeing the first and subsequent launches, this will be Sad day, to see the Shuttle program end, as we know it.

Please Please tell me the settings for 12 miles across the river. Bad lighting, to early and haze.

Crap equip, compared to what you use. Thanks if you get a chance. D200, 80-400 VR,tripod. I have used it many times….Not pleased. Maybe a tip or two would help.

I am embarrased to ask. But desperate for just one last shot.

Best shot.

Best Regards,

and stay crazy…you are the best

Jon Miller says:

on July 5, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Always enjoyed seeing the images from the space launches and landing from the magazines, and reading these put a face and person to those images still buried in my head… Thanks for the memories.

Jan Gemeinhardt says:

on July 5, 2011 at 7:50 pm

Joe, this was a great story. I love your work and your stories, give em coming! Thanks for sharing,

Jack says:

on July 5, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Great write-up Joe! I checked off one of my “bucket list” items a few months ago when I drove down from Ohio (second trip after the November scrub) and got to see Discovery’s last lift off. What a beautiful sight! I was able to get tickets on the Causeway (6 miles), but my photos were disappointing because of the haze and distance. A few of my photos from that day are at http://www.pbase.com/jmhoying/shuttle2011

Joshua Vensel says:

on July 5, 2011 at 8:11 pm

A great read and great photos. Thanks Joe!

Gene says:

on July 6, 2011 at 10:40 am

I love the way you write. You could make a story about opening a soda interesting. Of course it is great they revolve around the trials of being a photographer. Keep’um coming.

Linnea says:

on July 6, 2011 at 2:42 pm

Fascinating. Thank you.

Dominic says:

on July 6, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Thanks Joe for sharing this story with us!

Chet says:

on July 6, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Great story & images as usual but whad up with all the cussing?
Have you recently joined the Navy!
I can’t believe I’m criticizing somebody for swearing so much but really you’re smarter than you sound in this piece.


Gemma says:

on July 7, 2011 at 6:17 am

Mr McNally, I think I might be getting a crush on you! Your books have reignited my interest in photography. I love the way you write. I love to read your stories and blog. And most of all I love your photos. You are my new hero! So glad I discovered you. Thanks :)

Myles says:

on July 7, 2011 at 8:56 am

Mr. McNally- I love your stories. You have such a great way of keeping me captivated. I will miss the shuttle. There are so many memories I have through the years of the project. It’s kind of amazing to see how such technology can be woven into the fabric of our history. To see how much it affects everyone. From the time I saw the shuttle at White Sands, NM to sitting in my fourth grade classroom when the news broke about the challenger disaster. So many cherished memories. Thanks for all you do and all you contribute to the rest of us dreamers.

Hank Morgan says:

on July 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm

McNally you old dog… Indeed that was some trip. Joe is one of the best shooters I ever worked alongside and the most fun to travel with. Have a photo of Joe and me with the gang rigged cameras which I will send along for posting. Basically we were just bracketing with all that gear. And didn’t you drown a few of Time Incs. Nikons on the remote shots?

Branqueamento Dentário says:

on July 7, 2011 at 1:51 pm

I was love this history!!! the last launch and the best!

Dietmar says:

on July 9, 2011 at 10:03 am

Thanks Joe,

for this great story and this impressing photos. I love this film look. Now i´ll take my F801s. ;)

Regarda from Germany


Iden Ford says:

on July 9, 2011 at 10:22 am

It’s a sad time for those of us growing up and dreaming about trips to outer space and beyond. But the harsh reality is our dreams cost money. Just like being a photographer. So thank you for these exceptional shots and stories. At least you continue to dream and inspire us. Thanks Joe

Scott Holstein says:

on July 11, 2011 at 11:26 pm

Cool, Joseph; nice shots and interesting back stories. The launches were always a big deal growing up in central Florida. I can remember, as a young tot, watching the Challenger in ’86 from the house with my mother. In elementary school, the entire school would shut down and go outside to watch any time there was a launch. I also remember occasionally being woken up by the sonic booms upon reentry.

Ryan McGovern says:

on July 13, 2011 at 8:40 pm

THE TILE! back in the early eighties, I was a 7 or 8 year old space nut. I remember that tile pic very well. After i decided that I would not be a astronaut, maybe that pic was the one that made me want to be a photographer instead? Now I want to go ack and check out some of my books and magazines I had as a kid and see who took all the pics.

krista says:

on July 17, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Great writing, as always. It’s sad to think that the next generation won’t be able to grow up watching the shuttles take off, but obviously due to the budget shortfalls it is in my opinion a necessary cut. Thanks for the great read!

Rogier says:

on July 18, 2011 at 5:52 am

Awesome stories and pictures. So encouraging! Thank you.

Aaron Wulf - Become A Photographer says:

on July 23, 2011 at 11:10 pm

AWESOME photos, and a great story with great details; it just confirms that networking, being in the right place at the right time, and being a skilled shooter will, indeed, take you far in this industry. Thanks for sharing!

Hope you are well, Joe!

aaron says:

on September 17, 2011 at 1:16 pm

I really enjoyed reading this post! I’ve never seen the shuttle take-off but, I’ve seen it land plenty of times. Fantastic!

I remember, as a kid, watching the wing of the Challenger go over my head as it was towed out to Edwards AFB. Like it was yesterday, I remember it. The road they towed the shuttle down was renamed to “Challenger Way”.

My dad worked in composite materials for air/spacecraft and, on a couple occasions, brought home a full-sized decommissioned heat tile from the earlier shuttle missions. I still have those tiles. Great memories! Thanks for the story and bringing back those memories.

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