Photographing the OA-8 Commercial Resupply Mission to the International Space Station: By Elliot Severn
Last week, I had the exciting opportunity to witness and photograph the launch of Orbital ATK’s eighth commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station.
After the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA needed a way to carry cargo for our astronauts who continue to live and work on the ISS. They hired two companies, SpaceX and Orbital ATK, to ferry cargo to the station using their own vehicles. SpaceX began flying cargo missions for NASA in 2012 with their Dragon capsule. Dragon is outfitted with a heat shield and parachutes, and is capable of returning experiments and cargo to Earth. Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft lacks this return capability, but makes up for it with additional cargo capacity. Cygnus also has the important role of removing garbage from the ISS and disposing it during a destructive reentry over the Pacific Ocean.
I began covering NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program as a photojournalist during the first test launch of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket in 2013. Antares is the largest rocket to be launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia and was designed to launch Cygnus and other medium-class payloads into low earth orbit. Being roughly a 6-hour drive from Connecticut, Wallops Island is easier to get to than Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is located next to Assateague and Chincoteague Islands, famous for their beautiful beaches and wild pony populations. The public can also get within two miles of the launch pads at Wallops, much closer than other American spaceports.
After the test launch of Antares, I covered the test flight of Cygnus and its first two CRS missions, photographing the launches for StarTalk Radio and AmericaSpace. Then in October, 2014, the Orb-3 mission exploded seconds after liftoff, destroying the vehicle and damaging the launch pad. Luckily, our remote cameras at the launch pad survived the explosion and our images were used in the accident investigation. After two years, the launch pad had been repaired and Orbital ATK redesigned Antares to use a new main engine. In October of last year, the redesigned Antares successfully returned to flight from Wallops.
For this mission, NASA and Orbital ATK gave journalists the opportunity to see the Cygnus spacecraft in the cleanroom before launch. Before being mated to Antares, Cygnus is kept in a clean environment to prevent contamination of its flight systems and cargo headed for the space station. The spacecraft itself stands about the height of an adult giraffe. It’s big, silver pressurized cargo module can carry more than 7,000lbs of supplies. Once in the cleanroom, there was a dedication ceremony naming the spacecraft after the late Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. They also dimmed the lights to show Cygnus’s navigation lights used by the astronauts to monitor its approach. Seeing this hardware that would soon be in orbit was an awe inspiring experience.
A few weeks later, I headed back to Wallops. The day before launch, media photographers were escorted out to the launch pad to set up remote cameras. Remote cameras capture up-close views of the launch from short distances that are too dangerous for people to watch from. They are usually activated with sound triggers or timers. Remote photography is a challenging skill that requires a lot of preparation as well as luck. We happened to be at the launch pad during sunset, which gave us incredible views of the rocket lit up against a colorful sky.
The next morning, we were all up at 4am to view the launch just after sunrise. The weather was clear (and cold) and all systems were go on the vehicle. Then one minute before launch, range safety caught a small airplane in the launch zone. The rocket only had a 5-minute window to launch, so it had to be postponed for 24-hours. That afternoon we had the chance to go back to the pad to check our cameras, swap batteries, and put hand warmers around our lenses to prevent frost or dew. As annoying as a launch delay can be, it was nice to have a day to relax and spend time with colleagues.
The next day was much luckier. After some suspenseful moments involving technical issues and boats in the launch zone, everything was resolved within the last few minutes. Unlike the first launch day, cloud cover diffused the light from the rising sun and made for a more dramatic liftoff. The flame from the engines was almost too bright to look at closely. From two miles there is a short sound delay, but you start to hear the rumbling by the time it clears the launch pad. Amid a thunderous rumble and crackle, we watched Antares disappear into the clouds, only to reappear above the first cloud layer. It created a contrail at high altitude and eventually, the bright light faded away overhead. Within minutes we heard the news that Cygnus had reached orbit. A few hours after launch we gathered our cameras and I was very pleased with the results. Here are some of my images and videos of the launch:
Cygnus arrived at the International Space Station on November 14 and will remain for roughly one month. After the cargo is unloaded, astronauts will use it as an extra laboratory space.
This was my first launch campaign while teaching at the Discovery Museum and it was great to be able to share these experiences with my Discover NASA and STEM Accelerator students as it was happening. I’d like to thank NASA, Orbital ATK, and Virginia Space for the amazing access we were provided and a special thanks to Keith Koehler and Patrick Black at NASA for making our remote camera setups possible.