NASA SHUTTLES CAPTURED WITH THE HASSELBLAD 500 EL/M

John A. Chakeres began documenting the NASA space shuttle fleet over thirty years ago with the launch of the first Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981 using Hasselblad 500 EL/M cameras. A five-year undertaking that went on hiatus after witnessing the Challenger accident in 1986, John set the project aside and the negatives were kept in storage and never printed until recently. Building his own remote trigger device to capture the images closer up, John’s majestic space shuttle film “portraits” give the viewer a front-row seat to some of the most historic moments in history.


Discovery Mission 51A - Launch Complex 39A Remote Site 2 Frame 8 – 1984
© John A. Chakeres
Camera: Hasselblad 500 EL/M
Lens: Sonnar C F/5.6 250mm T*

Remote Trigger Device

When shooting these launches at the Kennedy Space Center, John was allowed to set up his cameras within a thousand feet (about 300 meters) of the space shuttle, which meant he needed a remote camera trigger to activate the motor-driven Hasselblad cameras. Through a complicated process, John developed his own remote trigger that could activate the motor of the Hasselblad 500 EL/M using the sound of the rocket engines or the light the engines produced. “If the cameras were set up close to the shuttle, sound would be used as the trigger; if they were set up farther away, light would be used,” explains John. This innovative device, dubbed the Omni Trigger because it was adaptable to any camera, was the best remote camera trigger at the space centre and highly sought after by many major news organizations.

HASSELBLAD HOUSING

John and his Hasselblads not only had the distance and remote triggering to overcome in order to capture these images, but also the humid conditions of Florida. In order to protect the Hasselblad cameras from the harsh environment, John built custom housings for each of them. These housings, made from aluminum, were painted white in order to reflect the heat. The structures had a “tropical roof” which kept the inside of the housings cool. To keep things dry on the inside, John used silica gel dehumidifiers. The housing worked very well to protect both the cameras and the color film he was shooting with.

Discovery Mission 51A Climb Out Press Site 1984

For this image, I remember wanting to create a photograph that conveyed what a launch felt like from the press site. This morning was special. It was an early morning launch, so the sun angle was low and provided nice side lighting. Also, there was an approaching storm front which provided some dramatic clouds. And what really makes the image work for me was the shuttle visible in a small hole in the clouds.

© John A. Chakeres
Camera: Hasselblad 500 EL/M
Lens: Sonnar C F/2.8 80mm T*

© John A. Chakeres
Camera: Hasselblad 500 EL/M
Lens: Sonnar C F/4 150mm T*

Discovery - Sunset Launch Complex 39A - 1984

The night before a launch, NASA would take all the photographers to the launch complex to photograph the shuttle as the service structure was rolled back to reveal the shuttle for the first time in preparation for launch. We would be there as the sun was setting and the turning on of the xenon lights to illuminate the shuttle at night. There was a brief moment when the setting sun was balanced with the xenon lights illuminating the shuttle. This is when the most pleasing images were made.

Challenger Mission 51B Remote Site Complex 41 1985

This image was a challenge. I was hired by National Geographic to help them with a remote camera shot from a location that had never been used before. National Geographic got permission from the Air Force to set cameras on the launch tower around 200 feet above the ground. This was a one-off opportunity, so the cameras had to work. Normally, sound was used to activate the remote camera triggers. But in this case, by the time sound would reach the trigger, the shuttle would be out of the camera frame. For this remote setup, I developed a light sensor to trigger the cameras.

© John A. Chakeres
Camera: Hasselblad 500 EL/M
Lens: Sonnar C F/5.6 350mm T*

I see these photographs as a time capsule of a unique moment in the history of the American space program. Between 1981 and 1986, the Shuttle went from an R&D to a fully operational commercial space program. Those early years were filled with excitement and optimism about the future of space travel. With every launch I witnessed, it felt as if I had a front-row seat to the future.

Challenger - Xenon Lights Launch Complex 39A - 1984
© John A. Chakeres
Camera: Hasselblad 500 EL/M
Lens: Sonnar C F/5.6 350mm T*

John’s captivating images of the shuttle launches and landings at the Kennedy Space Center captured between 1981 and 1986 by Hasselblad EL/M cameras have been beautifully bound in First Fleet.

ABOUT JOHN A. CHAKERES

American photographer John A. Chakeres has been an artist in the medium for over forty years. First Fleet is his fourth published book with his photographs. His work has been in numerous exhibitions and publications and can be found in multiple permanent collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Passing on his knowledge, John has taught photography, printmaking, and digital imaging at Ohio University, Columbus College of Art and Design, and Columbus State Community College. See more of his work here.

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