Recent Acquisition - Photograph Collection

Original caption, June 10, 1969:
Robert Courter soars through the air in a test of a jet flying belt at nearby Ft. Myer, Va.  In background is one of the Ft. Myer residences. Courter who is from Lewiston, N.Y., has been testing the flying belt, under development for the Defense Department, in various places in the country.”

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JANUARY 28, 2015

     Today, 29 years ago, the seven souls aboard STS-51-L and Challenger Space Shuttle Orbiter were lost.

Challenger Wreckage Today

     I always said I wanted to photograph all of the Space Shuttle Orbiters. I never thought I’d get the chance to photograph Challenger; but I did, sort of. This is as close as I may ever get to actually doing so.

     The first photo shows Launch Complex 31 and 32 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. At this launch complex, inside two dormant missile silos, rests the wreckage of Space Shuttle Challenger, meticulously sorted and cataloged in its underground tomb. This was as close as I could get to the highly restricted area. On the left side of the first photograph, you can see a beehive shaped block house which housed Launch Control for LC-31 and LC-32. To the right of the photo, there is a smaller, light colored dome, and to the immediate left of it, a slab of dark brown cement protruding from the ground. Those are the caps to the silos that house the Challenger wreckage.

     When I photograph and share an aircraft or spacecraft, I try to attach a corresponding story. I could talk about how or why this disaster unfolded, but this is common knowledge for most people who follow aerospace. Instead, I’m going to share a more personal story. I feel a close connection to Challenger because my father, Bruce Mason, was an applicant in the Teacher in Space Program. If he had been selected, he could have been on the fatal flight. This is an example of what thousands of Teacher in Space applicants and their families went through.

Teacher In Space

     The story starts before I was born. In 1984 Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space Program and my dad, a Georgia public middle school science teacher, applied as soon as he heard about the widely publicized program. Before applying to the Teacher in Space Program, he started the “Target Program”, which offers gifted children accelerated learning in the state of Georgia. Before that, he became the first educator in the state to connect a school computer to the internet.

     To apply, the teachers had to come up with an educational project that they would perform in space and submit a paper about the project along with their applications. My father’s experiment would have demonstrated and proven Newton’s Universal Gravitation Theory using simple machine mechanics in microgravity. It would have been something students could have watched on camera, seeing it work live from space.

     Over 11,000 teachers applied nationwide, but my dad was the only teacher in his school to sign up. Another part of the application process was to get a recommendation from a fellow teacher. When Dad approached a co-worker about the recommendation, she was happy to help, but said that he was crazy. Dad’s school students were in on the project too, and were all very excited about the possibility of their teacher flying in space.

     Months went by and tension grew at home. Mom was excited for Dad, but my sister, who was 12 at the time, begged him not to go, expressing fear that he would die. If I were around at the time, I would have fully supported my dad’s mission. 

     Just before the final 10 applicants were chosen, Dad received a letter saying that somebody else from his region was chosen to move on to the final stage of selection. He was heartbroken at missing the chance to fly in space until he learned about Christa Mcauliffe, the finalist, who was a perfect fit for the position. In his words, Dad said that “Christa was an amazing teacher, and an amazing woman.” My father even made plans to attend a teaching convention in San Francisco, where Christa was slated to speak after her spaceflight. She was an English teacher, and her project was to keep a journal during her time in space. This journal would have answered the question that every person has, “What’s it really like up there?”

Challenger Disaster

     January 28, 1986, Dad woke up to an extremely cold morning; so uncharacteristically cold that the county declared a “teacher work day”, where the kids would stay at home for their safety. My sister was sick that day, so Mom stayed at home to take care of her. Before going into work, Dad watched pre-launch news coverage of STS-51-L, which showed footage of enormous icicles hanging from equipment at Launch Complex 39B where Challenger sat ready for flight. Looking at the conditions, he assumed that they would scrub the launch, as they did five times leading up to that day.

     Later, Dad came back from his lunch break at work. He entered the building, walked down a hall and was stopped by a co-worker and family friend named Jackie. Dad tells me that, to this day he remembers the exact spot where he stopped. Jackie began exclaiming that the space shuttle had exploded. Jackie was known as quite a character and Dad thought she was kidding, just making a tasteless joke. The more insistent Jackie got, the more Dad didn’t believe her. The assistant principal, who was in his office nearby, overheard the conversation and interjected, confirming that the shuttle had exploded and that there would be no possible survivors. At that point, my father said that it felt as if a trap door opened up under his feet and he fell through it.

     My mother watched every rocket launch on TV and this flight was no different. Mom watched the whole thing happen from home, on live television. She said, “It went up and it was great. Then it just turned into fireworks and went in all different directions. I couldn’t believe what was happening because NASA is not supposed to do that.” She’d tried to call Dad at school, but these were the days before cell phones and he was out to lunch when it happened.

     Eventually, Dad saw the footage of the launch. Even now, he says that it’s hard for him to watch. Especially the moment when the camera cuts to the horrified face of Frederick Gregory in Launch Control, an astronaut who gave Dad a tour of Kennedy Space Center. Dad knows Frederick as such a glowing, positive person and it was impactful to witness him go through such shock. Later that evening, my family watched president Ronald Reagan’s speech after the accident, feeling as though it was our president’s finest moment. Reagan said, “We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe…We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

     The next day, the students were back at school. All the kids that were in Dad’s class when he applied had moved on to the next grade, but they all managed to find him during the school day and express their shock and condolences.

     Quickly, Dad’s thoughts went to Christa, her family and especially Christa’s students who watched the launch live, all wearing party hats and using noisemakers, cheering their teacher before she was lost. Dad had been able to relate to Christa because she had a daughter at the same age as my sister who also didn’t want her parent to go into space.

     Instead of going to the teaching convention in San Francisco, where Christa would have spoken after her flight, my parents visited Christa’s hometown, where she lived and taught. Later, once I was born, Dad made sure to share Christa’s legacy with me. I can’t remember a time in which I didn’t know who she was and what she did. Ever since the accident, Dad displayed a sign on the wall in his classroom that said “Christa Mcauliffe teaches here too.”

Why Continue?

     Some officials and astronauts express anger or sadness with regards to the Challenger disaster and I understand why. I have similar feelings. But these feelings are ultimately overshadowed by pride for the fact that we pushed on with the shuttle program after each accident. I am confident that humans will never stop adventuring for the sake of science. Exploration is instinctually ingrained in every person. And every person that flies into space, who takes such risk for the betterment of the human race, is a hero, no matter if their flight fails or succeeds.

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Previous Work

The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, The Red Arrows, are one of the world’s premier aerobatic teams. They are the public face of the RAF and ambassadors for the United Kingdom. 

These shots were taken for the build up of my final project - some over the summer, but most are at RAF Scampton, November 2014. I visited the base to shoot some images for my project as I’d never shot The Red Arrows in the winter before. 

After looking at these images and working with them, I came to realise they are rather commercial. They do show the dynamics of aerobatics and flight - this was what I wanted to originally portray. The Red Arrows are also famously known to represent the United Kingdom, so themes such as patriotism, shape and colour are also within this work. 

"Aerobatics is the practice of flying manoeuvres involving aircraft attitudes that are not used in normal flight"

However, after showing my images within the university environment, people felt there was something more to these aircraft than simply their primary function of flight. People became more interested in what is ‘less public’ - the pilots and process that goes into preparing one of the world’s premier aerobatic teams.