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.
Others had done plenty of experimenting with remote triggers, using devices such as a cake pan that would set off the camera when vibrations from the launch reached a certain level. Sound triggers like that could be tripped accidentally, though, by low-flying aircraft that used to circle the pad before launches.
Mr. Andrews’ idea was to set up triggers featuring built-in alarm clocks set to power up only during the launch window. That kept the triggers from firing prematurely - an especially important fix when those unmanned cameras were shooting through rolls of film rather than today’s high-memory digital media cards.
His system quickly gained favor among those who regularly photographed launches, and wire services such as the Associated Press and United Press International - and eventually NASA itself - ended up buying his timers. He kept refining the system based on trial and error. Within a couple of years, camera manufacturer Nikon had hired him as a technical representative in its Washington office. He now works in a similar capacity for Canon.
“Of course, there’s lots of other guys that have boxes out there and triggers and mechanisms, but it seems like Scott’s is just proven from all his years of experience,” said Bill Ingalls, NASA’s senior contract photographer. “He really knows what he’s doing for that kind of stuff.”
Coupling Mr. Andrews’ technical expertise and his willingness to share his knowledge and techniques with others - “He’s really an awful businessman,” said his son, Philip - he quickly became the go-to guy for advice on how to make a photograph anywhere photographers weren’t allowed.
Mr. Andrews has set up remote cameras for numerous presidential inaugurations and in the gallery of the U.S. Senate. He got the call to rig the camera system inside the courtroom during the O.J. Simpson murder trial and regularly consults on projects with government and military entities.
“I’ve been able to test equipment in very, very hazardous situations both in safety and in weather-related things and apply it to how I can help somebody out in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. “I can say categorically that this camera, if you put it next to a howitzer or a light gun of some sort, or you’re in a firefight, it is going to work.”
Mr. Andrews’ obsessive pre-launch planning and technical expertise paid dividends on one of the darkest days for the space program.
Having witnessed so many launches, Mr. Andrews was in the midst of his usual routine as Challenger roared off the launchpad for what turned out to be its final liftoff. With his cameras set up in the field, Mr. Andrews was shooting with a handheld camera near the press site when a fellow photographer noted something unusual a little over a minute after launch.
As Mr. Andrews reflexively kept shooting photos, the bystander suggested that the shuttle might have aborted its mission and was turning to return for an emergency landing at the launch site. Mr. Andrews thought it was too low for that to happen.
“I knew that they were basically, um, lost,” he said. “It was a shock, a real shock.”
Mr. Andrews described NASA employees and media members walking around in a daze for minutes afterward. Before long, he made a snap decision - he would take his film and leave Kennedy Space Center.
“I was afraid they were going to lock the place down,” he said.
In the meantime, he heard from Newsweek’s Mr. McVea, an acquaintance from work at inaugurations. The magazine didn’t have a photographer assigned to the launch. Karen Mullarkey, the director of photography, was planning only a small spread inside the magazine focusing on Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher slated to travel to space.
“It’s going to be two pictures [from AP or UPI]. It’ll be the teacher walking out, picture one, and picture two is the liftoff,” she said. “So we’re watching it on television and we see picture one, and then they lift off and then we watch the whole thing [explode].”
Mr. Andrews heard from Mr. McVea shortly afterward and caught a plane from Orlando to New York, where the Newsweek staffer met him at the airport. They took the film to be processed, and one of the photos that emerged graced the cover of the magazine’s Challenger commemorative edition days later.
“It was just amazing how sharp and in focus [it was], and he actually got the actual moment of the explosion,” Mr. McVea said. “It was just mind-numbing.”
As the shuttle program winds to a close, Mr. Andrews has stepped up his efforts to chronicle every aspect of the operation. Last year, at the suggestion of astronaut Alan G. Poindexter, Mr. Andrews, his son Philip and Apple software engineer Stan Jirman documented the entire process of preparing a shuttle for flight.
Using remote cameras embedded throughout Kennedy Space Center, they assembled a time-lapse film from thousands of still photos depicting every step of Discovery’s preparation before Mr. Poindexter and his crew took off on the 131st shuttle mission, along with the launch and landing.
The project amounted to a tribute by Mr. Poindexter, Mr. Andrews and the rest to the thousands of men and women who have worked behind the scenes to keep the shuttle program running. Most of them will be out of a job shortly after Atlantis completes its final flight.
“We knew the program wasn’t going to last forever,” Mr. Poindexter said. “It’s unfortunate that the follow-on programs are going to be delayed somewhat and we are going to see a loss of jobs. It’s really difficult for a lot of friends of ours that dedicated their lives to this business and now are looking for other things to do.”
Though photographing shuttle launches is only a minor part of Mr. Andrews’ day job, plenty of people are wondering what he will do now that a program that has inspired so much of his work is gone.
Not to worry, Mr. Andrews said. He’ll have plenty of work to do during the upcoming presidential campaign, the conventions and the ensuing inauguration, and for the first time in memory he’ll be able to plan a vacation with his wife of 32 years, Martha, and not worry that NASA might get in the way.
Whenever manned spaceflight returns to the cape, though, it’s a safe bet that Mr. Andrews will be there setting out his cameras just like he has for years.
“I would certainly hope so,” he said. “I would certainly have my thumb out on 95.”