The space shuttle: Portrait of an American era

July 6, 2011

Since the first launch in 1981, the space shuttle program has been a symbol of American 20th-century leadership. Soon, it will become a bygone era.

Like millions of Americans, I grew up in the age of spaceflight. My father, a senior technical specialist for Canon U.S.A., has been photographing rockets at Kennedy Space Center since his dad took him to the launch of Apollo 10, the second time astronauts orbited the moon, in 1969.

He photographed my first visit to the space center, as well. Sitting on my dad’s desk today is a folder of snapshots: one of me grinning in front of a mock shuttle, another with my face pushed through a hole atop an astronaut cutout. I am 4 in these pictures, and the shuttle has already been around for a decade. Fourteen years later, I went to college to study photojournalism. A picture of the shuttle landed me my first front-page photograph.

When the end of the program was announced, my father and I knew we had to do something special. We have spent the past three years securing access and photographing scenes few people have ever witnessed. It has been quite a bit of work, but I have felt humbled and privileged every minute I have been at the space center.

In the simplest terms, these photographs tell a story of the work of men and women who showed up every day and launched spaceships. By doing their jobs well, these workers — from much-hailed astronauts to Harley-riding technicians — have made the extraordinary task of spaceflight seem mundane.

Of course, this work was anything but ordinary. It was risky business, undertaken in the pursuit of knowledge and scientific advancement. Unfortunately, there have been tragic endings. Like the intrepid explorers for centuries before them, astronauts have lost their lives looking over the horizon at what lies beyond.

These photographs are an incomplete memorial to their achievements. I hope this work can serve as a partial archive, as a tribute to the men and women who spent their lives (some of whom, sadly, gave their lives) making spaceflight a daily activity. In looking back, we can look ahead to find the next adventure over that distant horizon.

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