The NASA News Office was a chaotic scene in the early morning hours of July 21 as hundreds of journalists jockeyed for access to the Shuttle Landing Facility to record the final moments of the Space Shuttle Program.
“It’s definitely the most media coverage I’ve seen for a landing.” said Allard Buetel, a NASA public affairs official.
While Atlantis’ landing was certainly less covered than its launch, Buetel estimated more than 1,000 reporters showed up to capture the event. For STS-135, the final mission for the 30 year old shuttle program, NASA issued more than 2,700 media passes to news agencies from all over the world. While some missions have drawn similar amounts of media attention, including Shuttle Discovery’s launch following the Colombia disaster, and John Glenn’s 1998 return to space, Buetel said none drew the same amount of interest for a landing.
A day earlier, hundreds of photojournalists lined up to wait for busses that would take them to the Shuttle Landing Facility, so they could place remote cameras to capture close up shots of the vehicle touching down.
“I’ve never seen this many photographers try to shoot the landing,” said Joe Marino, a photographer who shoots for UPI. “But this is a tough shot to take.”
Marino should know. He’s one of the veterans of the NASA press site, having attended every launch and landing since the second launch of Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981. Other photographers know this too, and he was frequently asked for advice from other photographers while setting up his owncamera system. A pre-dawn landing means careful settings are needed to capture the fast moving shuttle, while still having enough light for a proper exposure.
“I should be charging for this,” he smiles.
Now that NASA’s manned spaceflight program is in hiatus as other technologies are developed, the NASA press site will be largely dormant save for a few unmanned missions to Mars, the moon, and Jupiter coming up later this year. None of those are expected to attract the media attention a dramatic Shuttle launch otherwise might.
On the roughly 20 acre site, sits more than a dozen permanent structures — remote studios and field stations, leased by agencies such as Reuters, the Associated Press, CBS and NBC. CBS and NBC have each have 3 story structures with rooftop observation points of the two launch pads now facing demolition.
Over the years, semi-permanent trailers have been pulled into the area, to accommodate the overflow. Smaller agencies, including CTNewsJunkie.com, make do with assigned desk seating in one of NASA’s two media buildings. Miles of cable, well over 11 by rough estimate, run in conduits all over the site.
While often overloaded during a mission, a small group of NASA staff and volunteers try to accommodate every media request. NASA also keeps volumes of information available in print and digital formats. Distribution boards for NASA’s live audio and video feeds are available for any media member to simply plug into and record. A video library in the main press building allows journalists to copy high definition video footage of recent missions directly to laptops.
Some members of the media, frustrated by deadlines and the chaotic atmosphere that surrounded the final mission lamented that they were glad this would all be over soon. However the majority of reporters and crew were genuinely sad to witness the end of the program. Long lasting relationships have been built over the last three decades, and now these friends bid each other goodbye. Some even shed tears.
During the Tow Back of Shuttle Atlantis, CTNewsJunkie.com reporter, and fellow photographer Lon Seidman made the comment “Whenever NASA does return to manned spaceflight, it’s not going to look as awesome as that shuttle does.”
Photographer Tony Land was part of the CTTechJunkie team covering the final launch and landing of the Space Shuttle program.