I hope you enjoyed the first installment – This is part 2. I was thinking that this would be the 2nd half but it look like there will be a part 3 and maybe even part 4 shortly. I hope you find this enjoyable and educational.
The Space Shuttle
The Space Shuttle program brought things back to life at the Cape. The STS-1 launch on April 12, 1981 had 2,707 accredited press representatives present from all over the world. It was a mob scene and you had to have someone hold your spot shooting across the water to the pad. It was a sea of tripod legs. People literally camped out to hold space for themselves and/or the rest of their crew.
With the program came all sorts of new problems to solve. The main engines and the solid rocket boosters had never been fired together. No one knew what the exposure would be. NASA put out a recommended exposure sheet and also indicated that the smoke would most likely be red when ignited and burned together. Both their exposure info and the red smoke scenario were wrong. Luckily some of the old hands didn’t pay attention to NASA and did what their gut told them. Not a problem for shots from the press center as exposure could be adjusted but remotes had to be out the day before. It turned out that the basic exposure was about a stop more closed than a bright sunny day exposure. Slide film (most were shooting ektachrome back then) did not handle overexposure well so those that followed NASA’s guide sheet were really off and lost most of their launch images.
Those that had shot Apollo knew that the good shots would come from remotes placed near the launchpad. Very few people were allowed to do this as it required guards to accompany people putting out remotes.
Mike Phillips and I had very little experience with remotes. Mine being limited to President Reagan’s 1st inauguration where I had to fill in at the last minute for Ron Thompson who fell off the Pool TV stand the night before the inauguration. Forty two cameras for most of the agencies, papers and magazines covering the event. They would not let all those people up on the stand so NPS (Ron) volunteered to wire and sit up there and fire the cameras. Thompson was the guy that knew how to do it and when he fell, it meant having to get involved to meet the commitment that NPS made. They say that trial by fire is the best way to learn. All but one fired and we got images for that person from one of our cameras.
1981 Regan Inauguration -and a shot from one of the 42 cameras- Photos©Bill Pekala
Due to Nikon’s connections with NASA public affairs we were some of the few that were allowed to set out remotes. The first launch was scheduled for April 10, 1981 but was delayed two days from the original date. Remotes went out but then with the delay everyone got a chance to check on their remotes and reset everything. Problems were already showing up. Batteries in some cameras were dead from having the meter on for 12+ hours. Some cameras had mysteriously fired and had to be completely reloaded and set. It was becoming obvious that this was not going to be easy. All of this seems simple today but back then it was cutting edge. There was nothing commercially available that would remotely fire the cameras. Everything had to be hand-made but more about that later.
Those that had been working remotes during the Apollo program and for some of the unmanned launches were helpful in guiding the few others that wanted to shoot remotes. I remember many late night sessions with Ralph, and others, that had experience doing similar remote work. Everyone was willing to share what they had learned during Apollo.
Ralph Morse (center) with Ron Thompson (left) along with some other “remote pros” sharing some wisdom. photo ©Bill Pekala
Very few of the shots you see from STS-1 were from remotes, only a few actually went off on time. One of the guys with the most local experience was Red Huber from the Orlando Sentinel. Red is still shooting for them and is one of the most knowledgeable on remotes at Kennedy Space Center. His was also one of the successful remotes of STS-1.
Photo ©1981 Red Huber – Orlando Sentinel
Everyone that failed on STS-1 knew that there was a lot of homework to do before STS-2. Some of the best minds were getting together and trying all sorts of solutions in preparation for the next launch. A lot of images were lost to bad exposure, false triggering, and dead batteries on the first launch.
As a backup – all the remote photographers also shot from the press mound. In my last post you saw what a 600mm would give – not great but better than calling your boss to tell them that the remotes didn’t work as planned. Failure was not an option if you wanted to be there next time.
Plenty of experimenting and testing was going to have to take place well in advance of the next launch date. That meant that the NPS crew would have to be onsite in advance of the normal 3-4 days before.
Mike Phillips and I would again be the team on deck for STS-2. Since it was going to be a long trip we rented a condo in Cocoa Beach in the same building that Ralph and the Time-Life team was staying in. We had the help of Ron Thompson although he had moved from technical to sales at Nikon and was still suffering the effects of falling off the main Pool TV camera stand at the Reagan Inauguration. Ralph Morse was also there sharing what he knew about remotes but was getting up in age and physically was not able to spend a lot of time out in the remote areas.
It was obvious that improvements were going to have to be made if you wanted to rely on remotes. Of course, the remote cameras always provided the best shots, manned positions were over 3 miles away and usually had a lot of haze and ground effect heat waves to degrade the images.
This was the best you could hope for from a manned position at the press mound. Not real exciting is it? 600mm © Bill Pekala
By the time STS-2 launched in November of 1981, we had worked out most of the problems. At least in theory, the launch was the time to see if the theories were correct.
The Nikon Guys, now NPS, were more than willing to assist and had years of experience from working with Ron and Ralph from the Apollo days. There were only a handful of people who knew how to make this stuff work remotely and Mike and I decided that we could really help the rest of the press by becoming the experts and passing on what we learned.
We started rotating in other NPS staff to work with us and to bring the entire department up to speed. Kennedy Space Center was in Fred Sisson’s territory. Fred was in our Atlanta office and took care of things in the Southeast part of the U.S. From the press turnout, it was obvious that this was going to continue to grow to more than just Mike and I could handle. We had our regular jobs to take care of and the sporadic schedule of the Shuttle was a real problem. The launch would be scheduled and then delayed and then rescheduled. We also started to rotate in other NPS reps so that they could see and learn about what was going on. The whole staff had a turn at the Cape. We had to have staff that could get there regardless of the schedule and they all needed to be up to speed.
There was a lot of experimenting and fine-tuning during the first 5 launches in 1981-82. It was a constant learning experience. Nikon was always trying new things and passing on what we learned. There were four missions scheduled for 1983. With varying degrees of success in the first 5 launches, we were pretty confident that we knew what we were doing and became the go to guys for info, especially for people that had never done remotes. With each new crew, local papers in their area would send people to cover the launch so there were always new people needing help that had never done remotes. We even made extra triggers to loan to 1st timers.
This was a time of sharing by all that had experience. The regular shooters from the local papers and the wire services were all willing to educate new comers. A lot of hard, sweaty work but lots of fun also.
NASA was also beginning to appreciate the publicity that great remote photos were bringing to the program and they stated letting more and more people set out remotes in more than just the one location near the pad. By the time STS-6 & 7 came around in 1983 we and the regulars had it down to a very high success rate. Placing cameras at virtually every remote location that NASA would let us get to. Up close, wide, and across the waters of the areas surrounding the pad. Starting with STS-6, NASA also made the decision to not paint the center tank white. Seems that the paint cost them about 600 lbs of payload that could be used. At least that was the word at the press-site.