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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.

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Press waiting for the launch of STS-1 © Bill Pekala

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.

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Regan2-remotes-small1981 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 group-smallRalph 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.

STS-1-red huberPhoto ©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.

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Ralph Morse with a 800mm long lens from press site at STS-1 © Bill Pekala

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.

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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.

STS-2 leaves the pad November 12, 1981 ©Bill Pekala/Mike Phillips

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.

STS-6 in April of 1983©Bill Pekala
STS-6 in April of 1983©Bill Pekala/Mike Phillips


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STS-7 in June 1983 photo©Bill Pekala
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STS-7 -wide across water –  June 1983 photo©Bill Pekala

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  1. Bernie Campoli

    I first meet Ron Thompson when purchasing Nikon Gear for my Navy Photo Lab in Panama City,Fl, When the Manual 600mm lens arrived Ron Invited Me to STS-2 and on arrival ran into Ralph Morse Who I had met in 1964 while aiding him install Nikon F Cameras with 250 backs in the USN SeaLab Habitat,he soon had me helping him put out his Remote Stands near the pad (Made From welded Railroad tracks made into a triangle,My job was to slide them off the truck and what ever end came up we put a bullhead on for the remote camera on the second trip. BTW The Germans had beach obstacles at Normandy similar ro Ralph’s Camera Stands!

    • Bernie, I remember those remote pads of Ralph’s. Took stronger people than me to get them in place. I guess it was sometime in the first few launches that you and I met. Long time relationship my friend.

  2. Steve Heiner

    Great stories Bill, please keep it up.

    As a newbie in NPS back then, I remember when you assigned me to my first launch (thank you very much BTW). It was December of 1988 and was STS-27 with Atlantis on the pad. It was the second launch post-Challenger tragedy. I seem to remember that because it was a D.O.D. launch and was classified, we had more restrictions than you guys usually had there but Scott Andrews assisted me (a first timer) in putting out a remote N2020 camera within probably 300 yards of the Shuttle. I will have to dig those chromes up one of these days and share.

    I really think you should feature some of those crazy Florida swamp-technologies you guys developed and shared with so many, like the multi-camera boxes, staking down tripods, GEO-sensors, Meter timers, and the ‘renowned’ Mason-Jar-lid-rubber-band-paper-clip lens protector. I know your readers would find it all fascinating.

    Thanks for the memories Bill, I will stay tuned!


    • Thanks Steve – a lot of the items you mention will be in upcoming posts. A lot of technology was develeped there to deal with the swamp and other obstacles that we had to overcome. Lots of minds got together to come up with solutions. AND don’t forget – it was the days of film. We didn’t know how we did until a day later at best.

  3. Finally got to read both of these posts! Great stuff… I want more! Thanks for sharing these really cool memories. I’m sure glad I got to experience a non-cancelled shuttle launch before it ended! What an amazing experience!

  4. Sure brings back some great memories!! Wonderful stories! Thanks for the job my friend!

  5. Bernie Campoli

    Ladders etc, One of the NASA volunteers told me I could only put cameras at three locations but didn’t limit how many cameras, so I brought a 8 foot ladder and placed ball heads and tripod heads on top and the sides after staking it down with come -alongs we could put 8+ remote cameras at the three locations at the next launch a few more ladders appeared. During the Glenn launch Nikon asked me to help 4-5 Japanese Photographers with their remotes so I had them practice setting up a ladder in the parking lot next to the Nikon Trailer, These guys were real Pro’s from Japan, at first they just looked me and the ladder and then it became a race to see which one was faster! Out in the field I just stood back as they went to work.

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