What was it like to witness a Space Shuttle launch or landing?
For the Moving Beyond Earth (MBE) exhibition about the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and future human spaceflight, the team wanted to show how shuttle launches and landings became cultural experiences, not just technological events. Thousands of people gathered, often after having traveled great distances to do so. Many took pictures to record their presence at these historic events. What story would those snapshots tell?
We created a Flickr group (bitly/myspaceshuttlememories) and invited people to submit photos of themselves (or others) at Space Shuttle launches and landings. Our goal was to build a slideshow that could be displayed next to an artifact case holding NASA guest pins. A version of the slideshow would also be on our website. We announced the Flickr group in late September 2013—and waited to see what people would post.
At the end of January 2014, we assembled a selection committee consisting of Paul (the MBE gallery manager), Sarah (the Museum’s Manager of Online Engagement) and me (a curator on the exhibit team). Reviewing 315 images submitted by 83 different contributors, we were really pleased to see how enthusiastically people had responded. That was actually our first filter: the self-selected images that people identified in captions as their memories of the Space Shuttle. There were so many great photos that it took the committee two separate meetings to view them all for an initial assessment.
Next, we sorted based on our primary criterion: people! The “My Space Shuttle Memories” Flickr group included many artistic, beautiful images of the orbiters (on the pad or launching) as well as the immense exhaust plumes after launches. But we needed people in the image, not just behind the camera. Some submitters had amazing behind-the-scenes access that most people never got (even us, we’re totally envious!). We wanted the slideshow to illustrate how the general public encountered shuttle launches and landings, so we oohed and ahhed but set those aside. With each image, we asked: can you tell easily that the people were at a shuttle event? (Sometimes waiting for a 4.5 million-pound spacecraft to launch doesn’t look that different that waiting for a concert or anything else.) Would the images “read” well on a small screen? Pretty quickly, categories emerged: people in front of an orbiter on the launch pad, the countdown clock, the telltale plume of smoke, or lawn chairs lined up amongst palm trees. But there were also some less common images: people next to the “days to launch” sign, the traffic clogging the Cape, people greeting the astrovan carrying the astronauts to the launch, professional photographers shooting the launch, and “selfies” with the shuttle.
Having made an initial selection of 63 photos from 315, each of the selecting committee members then individually reviewed those finalists, voting “yes” or “no” on each. Each image needed two or more votes to be selected. We thought that the committee might have to impose limits on how many images any one submitter could have in the final slideshow, but that turned out not to be an issue. We brought 54 images to the whole exhibit committee made final cuts based on their input, and wrote back to the image holders to ask for their final permissions to use the photos. In the end, we had 39 photos for the initial slideshow. It’s a nice group that tells a collective story about many aspects of experiencing a shuttle launch: anticipation, waiting, traffic, and the thrill of liftoff.
We hope you enjoy this collective snapshot of the cultural excitement that the Space Shuttle Program generated. We look forward to updating this slideshow with new images in the future, so if you have photos that tell the human story of shuttle launches and landings, please add them to the Flickr group. You might even hear from the Museum someday that your image is going on exhibit!
Margaret A. Weitekamp is a curator in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.