Kennedy Space Center

A rope access technician from Abseilon USA makes a drop
from the catwalks above the Atlantis' cargo bay to inspect
the platform seen just above him.
Last week, Phoenix-based rope access company, Abseilon USA, was hired to fly down to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The job was to replace a bracket above the space shuttle Atlantis, on display in the visitor’s center. The actual space shuttle Atlantis. Abseilon was selected for the job without even placing a bid after their work at the Grand Canyon Skywalk made them a ‘household name’ among rope access circles. Abseilon, from their inception, partnered with and has had a close relationship with the primary manufacturer and distributor of their equipment, CMC Rescue. They will often field test and review new products for CMC as well. Because of the uniqueness of this project, and, to be honest, just the general coolness, CMC Rescue was sending a representative to Florida to be on-site with Abseilon during this job. This is where I came in, I was being hired by CMC to photograph their equipment being used for such a unique project, they’d be looking for polished commercial style images as well as editorial styled images they could use in catalogs and advertising.
I was contacted Thursday morning about the job, checking my availability and interest. As soon as I heard the details and what was going to be going on I said I was absolutely available before even checking my calendar – sorry dentist appointment. I learned it was going be an all night job in the dark rafters of a large building, I knew right away I was going to need a camera body with the ISO abilities to handle the job with commercial-level results. I decided I was going to bring a Nikon D800 body with me, so I rented one from Borrow Lenses with overnight shipping to arrive in time.

As my pre-dawn Monday morning flight was pushing back
from the gate in Phoenix, I grabbed a quick cell phone pic
 of another Southwest Airlines flight pushing back beside us.

I spoke with CMC Rescue late Friday night and got the final confirmation, I needed to find flights and be in Orlando by 4pm Monday to meet up with the Abseilon team and Joe, from CMC. The plan was to all meet up, rent a Suburban for the hour drive to Cape Canaveral, begin working at 7pm and just work through the night until the job was done. We’d all be flying back out the next morning at 6am Orlando time, 4am Phoenix’s and my body’s time. Direct flights both ways were either sold out or outside the time window I needed, so I booked flights on Southwest through Atlanta both ways. The advantage with going Southwest meant I could take two bags in the cabin with me and check two bags free, one less invoice item.

Abseilon's rope access techs survey their work area above the
shuttle Atlantis.

Monday, by about 5pm, we had all met up in baggage claim and by 6pm we rented our Suburban and were headed to Cape Canaveral. We rolled up to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center at about 7pm and after a quick team photo in front of the sign, everybody went about their work.
The Abseilon team would be working off the rafters and catwalks about 200ft above the ground replacing a bracket above the Atlantis. This is a delicate area to be working, with the Atlantis directly below us, so I decided to use the robust D800 sensor with available light for action shots and only use my lights for portrait style shots later in the night.

View of the space shuttle Atlantis from the facility's catwalks
We originally thought the job would take no more than three hours, but that quickly changed. The bracket was part of a complex pulley system that needed to be completely disassembled and replaced by two technicians working from harnesses, suspended 150 ft. above the space shuttle. That took some time.

I had my lights and laptop on ground level, about every two hours I’d head back down from the catwalks to dump my memory cards to the laptop and back everything up as we went. Towards the end of the job, closing in on 3am now, the technicians made drops alongside a platform that hung from the new bracket they installed. This was a test of the new system and I knew this was my chance to fire up the lights for some portrait shots. I descended the catwalks as quickly as I could to find shooting angles and light the area in preparation of the first drop, directly over the Atlantis’ cargo bay. On this first drop I spread a lot of light so I could move around more freely and really show the context of the scene (opening image, above).

The second drop would occur near the orbiter’s nose (left). I decided to use a single speedlight to light the technician as he came down past the cockpit area, utilizing the facility’s decent lighting on the shuttle display for background lights and rim lights. Once that technician touched the ground the shoot would be a wrap, no second chances. I couldn’t meter the light 30 feet above the ground, so I dialed an educated guess into my speedlight and then just shot away as he descended through my light spread.

After 8 straight hours of shooting, and a long day of traveling, I downloaded the final images to the laptop and did a final back-up while the team gathered their own equipment. It was just after 3am, we’d head straight to the airport and fly back to Phoenix. I was so exhausted that I didn’t even peek at the images until the next day as I went through them. The whole trip was such a whirlwind, the images were the only proof I had to myself that this really happened. I had so much fun on this shoot, and I cannot wait to see how CMC Rescue plans to use the final images. I hope you enjoy the photos, and a HUGE thank you to Borrow Lenses for being reliable enough that I knew I could stake everything on your services.

ALL photos copyrighted 2014 by Matthew Strauss.


Popular Posts