Finding the Future of Exploration in the Space Shuttle Program
While it may not seem as flashy as the Apollo program's famous moon landing, the Space Shuttle program—which ran from 1980 to 2011—helped construct the International Space Station and conducted groundbreaking research that could lead to the first manned mission to Mars.
The program was decommissioned six years ago, but its remaining shuttles—Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour, and Enterprise—were fully restored and put on public display at sites across the United States. Acclaimed photographer and author Roland Miller took photos of the program's final launches and decommissioning process from 2008 to 2011. His photos combine documentary-style storytelling and abstract imagery, allowing viewers to derive their own meaning from a visual representation of a significant chapter in the history of space exploration.
What inspired you to shoot the Space Shuttle photos?
The Challenger accident had a large impact on me. I was working at Brevard Community College (now Eastern Florida State College) at the time. I stepped outside our building and watched the accident while it was happening. The Challenger accident was a tragic loss of life, but also a loss of innocence. It’s been almost therapeutic for me to be able to work through it with this project.
In 1988, some folks working at the university’s planetarium asked me to photograph a shuttle launch with their panoramic camera. It’s great to see a shuttle launch from anywhere, but we were just over three miles away from the launch site. The experience was so impressive, I knew I wanted to keep doing that.
What are some differences between your first book (Abandoned in Place) and The Space Shuttle project?
Most of the objects I was photographing for Abandoned in Place were no longer in use or had been adapted for other uses, while the space shuttles were still an active program at the time I was photographing them. By the time I started, NASA had already started disbanding and modifying facilities for the next generation of launches. If I was going to do it, I had to do it then. It gave me the chance to focus not only on the launches and the orbiters, but also on the process of preparing for launch and the decommissioning itself.
How do the people who worked on and flew with the Space Shuttle program fit into your work?
One experience, from when I was photographing the Endeavour, still sticks in my mind. An employee set to decommission the shuttle was taking out hazardous materials in the process of sending the shuttle to a museum. He said, “I just pulled out the oxygen system, so I guess the patient [referring to the orbiter] has stopped breathing.” He meant it as a joke, but it hit me that many of these people have been working at the facility for 25 or 30 years—the entirety of the Space Shuttle program.
They had spent their blood, sweat, and tears keeping these shuttles in the best shape because people’s lives depended on it. And now, they were being asked to dismantle those same objects. I realized in that moment how difficult it must have been to spend your whole career working on the most complex machine ever built, and then to have to undo that work. At the end of the day, the shuttle program was a human endeavor.
Do you think that museum life is the best place for the shuttles now?
Actually, the shuttles' main engines are still being re-used. The engines you see on display are fake. The shuttles’ real engines worked so well and are so expensive to build that new space exploration programs needed to use the old ones.
But overall, I think that keeping the space shuttles on display is a good thing. Launching a shuttle and re-entering the atmosphere are dramatic events. You can stand two feet from the space shuttles and see their wear and tear from over 100,000,000 miles of travel. That’s one of the things I tried to portray with my photography: the lives the shuttles had and everything they went through.
Why is it important to continue documenting the shuttles?
The space shuttle program is sometimes maligned because it lacked the drama of going to the moon, like the Apollo program did. The problem with that outlook is that the Space Shuttle program was designed for transportation and research, not just exploration. Some critics try to compare the Space Shuttles to Apollo, but it was never meant to be that way.
When you look at the broad scope of space exploration, you can see that without the Gemini program [which shared goals with the later Space Shuttle program], we never would’ve gotten to the moon. And the same is true when we consider the relationship between the Space Shuttle program and flying to Mars. The main role of the Shuttle program was to build the international space station, which is one of the most amazing feats of engineering society has ever accomplished. Most of the science and research we conducted that could lead to a mission to Mars came from the Space Shuttle program and the International Space Station, not the moon landing.
Space shuttles are some of the most photographed objects in the world. My approach is a little bit different from the standard, because I’m trying to give people a chance to apply their own experiences and viewpoints to the shuttles. And in turn, they can help expand the ways we appreciate space exploration.
You can see the Discovery at The National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia; the Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City; the Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; and the Endeavour at the California Science Center. After the success of Abandoned in Place, which documents unused American space-launch and research facilities, Roland Miller's Space Shuttle project is soon to feature in his second book.