Houston, we have a problem… disappointment.

Picture: X-15 NASA Experimental Rocket Plane and storm clouds, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards AFB, near Mojave, California.

X-15 at Dryden NASA Space Center

How do you deal with photographic disappointment? What happens when you go after a shot with a certain set of expectations, and then you are totally foiled in your attempts to get that shot?

I faced these questions myself over this last few days. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I recently had a very unique chance to photograph the Space Shuttle Atlantis at Edwards Air Force Base for my new book project. But you don’t see a picture of the Space Shuttle, do you?

I headed down to Edwards AFB last Thursday, for a special media tour on Friday that was to bring 15 members of the media to within 50 feet of the Space Shuttle. Needless to say I was excited, and filled with expectations of getting some really cool photos. But it was not to be. Within an hour of the media tour, the base was hit by both dust storms, thunderstorms, and wind gusts from 30-50 mph. The base was essentially shut down, while us media members sat in a NASA conference room, waiting. The shuttle was sitting in a huge “Mate-deMate” metal gantry structure, so any lightning within 10 miles presents a serious safety concern. It was only a matter of time until our ‘mission’ got completely scrubbed; a total no-go. “Sorry.” One of the NASA guys told me that they all felt really bad for having to cancel the tour. In his words, “For us, it’s like inviting you all (media) to a special dinner, and then when you get here, we have no food.”

For us photographers, we’re storytellers; we use our photos to tell stories or communicate and idea. So what do you do when the photo or story suddenly vanishes, and you have no chance at getting the shot you thought you were going to get? The answer: Have a back-up plan.

For this trip, the story I needed for my upcoming book had to deal with the history of aviation and flight research at Edwards. Having access to the Space Shuttle was like icing on the cake. Unlike other members of the media there that day, my story didn’t need the Shuttle. Fortunately, the NASA base had several planes on display in the parking area. And although inside a US Military Base, the NASA Dryden FRC is actually a separate property, belonging to a civilian agency. You can almost imagine my relief, and contrast to so many other situations, when I asked if it was OK to photograph these other planes. “Sure, on our property, you can photograph anything you want.”

I did get a shot of the Space Shuttle. It’s just a personal snapshot. I was maybe a hair over a quarter-mile away, through several fences. Still, I enjoyed myself. As I told some of the NASA folks, it was still a thrill and privilege to be as close as I was to SS Atlantis, and I was closer than I’d ever expected to be otherwise. But thanks to having a clear back-up plan, and a clear understanding of the story I needed to tell, I was still able to come home with the coverage I needed for my book.

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3 Comments on “Houston, we have a problem… disappointment.”

  1. Richard Wong Says:

    Glad you are able to take it all in with a positive attitude Gary. Not sure I would have reacted so calmly.

  2. Youssef Ismail Says:

    In my engineering days, my first job was stress analysis on the Space Shuttle’s main engines at Rocketdyne in So. Cal. This sounds like a very cool project you are on now. Good luck with it.

  3. Bob Towery Says:

    I can’t think of another mode of travel or photography subject where more goes wrong than flying. Something is always breaking, the weather causes this or that, can’t carry enough fuel to go there. It’s constant! Even for the shuttle.

    Would have been fun to photograph 14 glum photographers there in the desert!

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