When I was twelve, I went with my mom, brother and a family friend to see the Space Shuttle land at Edwards Air Force Base. It was the first mission after the Challenger disaster, and the orbiter was Discovery.
I took a roll of slides using a manual SLR camera and (for the landing itself) a telephoto lens. With the last shuttle mission ending tomorrow, I decided to track down the slides and scan them.
From what I remember, we drove out the night before and slept in the car. It was still pretty dark when we got up, even though the landing wasn’t until mid-morning.
We were out on the edge of a dry lake bed, far enough away that we couldn’t see the landing strip.
There was a bit of a festival atmosphere, with vendors selling food, sodas and souvenirs. Mostly, though, everyone was clustered as close to the fence as they could get to see the best view.
I put on a telephoto lens for the landing itself. When Discovery first came into view, it was barely a white dot in the sky…even through the camera.
Here’s that same shot, cropped so that you can see it at the original scanned resolution. What’s amazing is that even at this distance, you can make out the shape.
My grandfather, who had given me the camera and was teaching me a lot about photography, showed me how to make prints in his dark room. I made an 8×10″ of this shot of the shuttle approaching the landing strip, though I think today I would go for the next one instead:
I took the telephoto lens off after the landing. This should give you a better idea of just how far away we really were from the shuttle. NASA wasn’t taking any chances with civilians!
Here’s the line of cars waiting to leave the base. I don’t remember how long it took to get out, but I do remember that we shut the engine off for a long time waiting for the cars in front to move.
On the way out, I caught one last shot of the shuttle in the distance. You can just barely see it near the center of this photo.
I’ve uploaded the full set on Flickr. I know the photos themselves aren’t fantastic — we were several miles away, and I was only twelve after all, but there’s something special about photos you took yourself at an event you witnessed personally.