Christmas in Outer Space

Space Shuttle lifts off behind a Christmas tree in Cocoa , Florida Photo by Brian Cleary
With the holidays upon us my thoughts today drift back to December 19, 1999. At that time in my life I had a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son and my wife and I were living in Daytona Beach, Florida and I was scrambling as fast as I could to make ends meet as a freelance photographer.

That is how I found myself leaving my house at 6am on a Sunday morning to drive more than 200 miles to photograph a 1 o'clock Miami Dolphins/San Diego Charger NFL game at Joe Robbie Stadium. By leaving at 6 in the morning , I could make the drive to Miami and still arrive in time for the free, team-provided media lunch. At that time I was also covering some of the Space Shuttle launches at Kennedy Space Center in Titusville for Agence France Presse (AFP), the French wire service. I was going to miss this particular launch because of the conflicting football game that I was going to photograph.
During the long drive south to Miami on that Sunday morning I had plenty of time to think and I , as was my habit, I began to calculate what time I would be home that evening. I wasn't long before I realized that, if the game ended at about 4 pm, as usual, and if I got to my car and on the road quickly, I would be near Kennedy Space Center by about 8 pm. I also knew that the Space Shuttle was scheduled to blast off at 9 pm. I picked up my cell phone and called my AFP contact at Kennedy Space Center and told him that, if he wanted, I could try to photograph the launch from somewhere nearby and then bring the film to him at the Space Center. He told me that would be fine and even better if I could somehow tie it in with the holidays, since Christmas was only a few days off.

With my task defined, I continued south to Joe Robbie Stadium, where I shot the game, which the Dolphins won 12-9 (YAY!), dashed to my car and headed north on I-95. As usual, between traffic, stopping for gas, grabbing some food, etc, by the time I was nearing the space center, I was running a little late.
I was monitoring the launch on my radio , and knowing that I would have to drive 10 or 15 minutes east after leaving the interstate and still find a suitable site from which to photograph the launch, I made the decision to exit I-95 and drive east near Melbourne, FL at about 8:30.
Arriving on state road A1A, which parallels the Atlantic Ocean with just a few minutes to spare I drove north, hoping to find some sort of Holiday scene. Sure enough, I found a decorated christmas tree at an oceanside park, parked my car, grabbed my camera and tripod and waited for the launch, which was now less than 10 minutes away.
Although this before the days of readily available portable GPS, and while I didn't know exactly where on the horizon the shuttle would appear, I knew from experience that in a night launch a bright glow precedes the appearance of the firing column of the space shuttle rising into the night sky.
With moments to spare, I mounted my camera on my tripod, set the shutter speed to "bulb", guessed at a f-stop, about f22 (these things are bright!), and waited. The horizon began to glow, I placed my tripod appropriately and opened the shutter. The Shuttle streaked through the sky and was gone in less than a minute. I packed up and headed to the space center. This being before the days of digital photography, I processed my film and handed the frame to the AFP photo editor, who scanned in and transmitted in around the world.
For my efforts on the day, between the football game and shuttle launch, a 500 mile drive and and a 16 hour day I earned about $500, including expenses.
A successful day for a struggling freelancer in 1999!

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