Mr. Space Shuttle’s final shoot

Photographer ready to record last launch, capping 30 years

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. When Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated in flames and smoke on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, panic rippled through the photo department at Newsweek. As space shuttle launches had become somewhat routine, the magazine hadn’t bothered to send a photographer to document Challenger’s latest mission.

It appeared that Newsweek might be caught empty-handed on one of the biggest news stories in years, but photo operations manager Kevin McVea had an idea. He would call Scott Andrews.

“We knew he was there,” Mr. McVea said. “He was Mr. Space Shuttle.”

Even then, five years into the shuttle program, the Annandale, Va.-based photographer’s reputation was well established. Mr. Andrews had been there from the very beginning and has remained a fixture at launches, missing only two shuttle flights through three decades of triumph and tragedy.

He will be at Kennedy Space Center once again Friday to monitor the dozens of cameras he has set up at every conceivable angle around the launchpad in preparation for the 135th and final shuttle flight. Weather permitting, Atlantis is scheduled to take the program’s parting shot at 11:26 a.m.

The mission will bring one era of U.S. space exploration to an emphatic close while ushering in an era filled with questions and uncertainty for NASA and U.S. space exploration.

An unfavorable forecast for the morning launch was just one of myriad complications weighing on Mr. Andrews‘ mind this week as he and his team scrambled to deploy more than 30 cameras throughout Kennedy Space Center and beyond, each designed to capture a specific angle as Atlantis arcs from Launch Pad 39a one last time.

There won’t be a finger on the shutter of any of those cameras as the shuttle departs. Many of them are so close to the launchpad that a person standing in that spot at liftoff would be killed by the vibrations. Others are positioned in areas that are off limits to observers. But all of them, Mr. Andrews hopes, will provide a series of memorable photographs that couldn’t be made with a camera operated manually several miles farther away.

“Launch day is almost anticlimactic,” Mr. Andrews said. “It’s like you’re harvesting what you sowed in previous days there.”

Space geek’ from the start

The seeds of Mr. Andrews‘ fascination with the space program date to his childhood. He remembers watching from his uncle’s backyard up the coast near Daytona Beach as the Apollo 9 mission launched in 1969. Then 14 years old, he was hooked immediately, gravitating to “just the whole spirit of it” as the U.S. raced to put a man on the moon.

He watched the next Apollo launch with his father, and by Apollo 15 in 1971 - when Mr. Andrews was a student at Annandale High School - he was mingling with photographers at the press site.

Though Mr. Andrews acknowledged he was “always sort of a space geek,” he chose to study ecology after high school and said photography was merely an avocation and a tool he used in scientific work at Virginia Tech and George Mason University. One of his other hobbies was cobbling together electronics, and it was that as much as anything else that would lead him to renown in space and photography circles.

When the space shuttle program began, he decided to attend the first launch, Columbia’s ascent on April 12, 1981, just to take in the scene. He and some friends had been working on a remote triggering system for cameras that Mr. Andrews thought might help document the shuttle and other launches, and he got to talking with some photographers about how it worked.

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