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Review: Last Launch


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Last Launch: Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis
by Dan Winters
Univ. of Texas Press, 2012
hardcover, 176 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-292-73963-5
US$50

The Space Shuttle program has firmly entered its afterlife, nearly a year and a half after its final mission. The orbiters are now at the museums that will host them, arriving in a variety of ways: a flyby of the nation’s capital, a parade through the streets of Los Angeles, a short trek across the Kennedy Space Center grounds (see “Sustaining momentum after the final wheels stop”, The Space Review, November 5, 2012). Still, the memories of those shuttles, in particular their final flights in February through July of 2011, linger. Those memories are captured vividly in Last Launch, a large format book of photographs of those final missions.

Last Launch is a book of art: a presentation of photos, some conventional and others not, that recall those final missions and revere the vehicles that flew them.

Professional photographer Dan Winters was one of a few who got close-up access to the shuttles for their final launches. This included not just the launches themselves—which he covered, as many other photographers do, by setting up remote cameras close to the pad—but also the preparations for those final launches. As you might expect, there are plenty of photos of the launches themselves, but also of the orbiters as they underwent processing for those final flights: a closeup of the interior of a Space Shuttle Main Engine nozzle; the cargo bay of Discovery, empty and stark white save for a blue hose incongruously lying on the floor; an orange pressure suit hanging on the wall, waiting to be worn one last time. The photos of the launches, though, are spectacular. (Curiously, the launches aren’t presented in chronological order: the launch of Atlantis on the final shuttle mission is placed between those of Discovery and Endeavour.)

Last Launch is a book of photographs, not a detailed account of those final three missions, and the book contains very little text. Al Reinart, the producer and director of the documentary For All Mankind, contributes a four-page history of the shuttle program. Former astronaut Mark Kelly, who commanded Endeavour’s final mission, writes a prologue so short—two paragraphs—one almost wonders if part of it got cut off. Winters himself describes both the process of taking those photographs and his own interest in space, dating back to growing up in California in the 1960s and being awakened before sunrise to watch on the television another historic launch, Apollo 11. Even the captions in the book are brief: little more than titles of the photos, and consigned to the back of the book.

Some may argue that there are many more photos of those final shuttle launches available for free online, including many by NASA itself. And that’s true: if all you want to do is gorge on launch photos, the Internet is happy to accommodate you. However, Last Launch is a book of art: a presentation of photos, some conventional and others not, that recall those final missions and revere the vehicles that flew them. And “revere” is not too strong of a word: in the introduction, Winters recalls going inside Discovery and likening the experience to a visit to a cathedral. “I felt the presence of the souls that had passed through her during the thirty years and millions of miles that she had traveled,” he writes. “It too felt like a spiritual place to me.” It’s in that frame of mind—reverence of a fantastic, yet flawed, spaceship—that this book should be kept.


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