First Flight Atlantis

John Chakeres and I met at a photography conference called FotoFest in 2008. Our mutual good friend, Melissa Noble, introduced us over lunch, not knowing that very separate paths would come together one day for a common destiny. I have always loved photography. My mother gave me a red leatherclad Petri rangefinder camera in fourth grade for my tenth birthday, and ever since I have been painting with light.

I would never have imagined that forty-four years later it would provide a powerful connection to bind friends together, as we shared our very different perspectives of both photography and space.

Challenger - SpaceLab Orbiter Processing Facility - 1985
Challenger - SpaceLab Orbiter Processing Facility - 1985

After Neil and Buzz set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, my childhood
friends all wanted to be astronauts. For days they pestered me about their new
dreams of riding rockets into space. It seemed that every youngster who had
witnessed the amazing technological feat on a rabbit-eared black-and-white
TV set wanted to be the next Neil Armstrong, but I had a different hero. I
wanted to be tennis great Arthur Ashe. He was a champion, and to a skinny
black kid in Lynchburg, Virginia, he was the giant step—leaping over barriers
for all humankind.

Atlantis Arrival - Crew Compartment - Kennedy Space Center - 1985
Atlantis Arrival - Crew Compartment - Kennedy Space Center - 1985
Atlantis Arrival - Vertical Stabilizer - Kennedy Space Center - 1985
Atlantis Arrival - Vertical Stabilizer - Kennedy Space Center - 1985

It was only years later, through a strange twist of fate, that my dreams turned to space and I began to set my own sights, my own lenses— on gaining an orbital perspective.

The Moon Landing and the preceding missions were punctuated with discovery, magnificence, and failure as the United States pushed beyond existing limits to send a human to the moon. More than an act of reckless courage, the space program was a resounding victory over our Cold War adversaries.

Discovery Mission 51A - Launch Complex 39A Remote Site 1 - 1984
Discovery Mission 51A - Launch Complex 39A Remote Site 1 - 1984

The Sputnik beep, the first score in the space race, caused fear in many, but it did not crush our hope. We hardened our resolve, galvanized our sense of national pride, worked harder, and gave birth to the Space Coast and a program of never-ending discovery.

Discovery Mission 51A - Launch Complex 39A Remote Site 2 Frame 18 - 1984
Discovery Mission 51A - Launch Complex 39A Remote Site 2 Frame 18 - 1984

The modern workhorse of our space program, the Space Shuttle, flew 135
missions, persevering through setbacks and tragedy to inspire countless men
and women to dream of new horizons. These powerful birds deployed satellites, served as a test bed for scientific and medical research, and made it possible to build our orbital outpost, the International Space Station.

I had the
privilege to live and work aboard the ISS for twenty-three days—twenty-three
days I will never forget.

Without this space wonder we, as an earthbound civilization, would not have worked together, living off-planet as one family, in our orbital outpost. I had the
privilege to live and work aboard the ISS for twenty-three days—twenty-three
days I will never forget. I first flew to space on the Shuttle Atlantis in February
2008. The mission was STS-122, and after Atlantis flawlessly docked with the
ISS, I used her Canadian robotic arm to install the Columbus Laboratory
from the cargo bay, growing the station by one more research module.

In November 2009, on STS-129, I returned to space on Atlantis for my final
voyage to the cosmos, when we installed and pre-positioned spare parts
so that the mission of exploration would continue, even though NASA had
announced that the last planned Shuttle Journey would be STS-135 in July
2011. The Shuttle program was coming to an end; our birds would be flying
no more.

I feel a sense of pride and gratitude at having been a Shuttle astronaut and was inspired every time I watched Discovery, Columbia, Atlantis, or Endeavour
launch and rocket off-planet, leaving a magical trail of exhaust for all to follow
to the heavens.

Columbia Return - Crew Compartment - Kennedy Space Center - 1985
Columbia Return - Crew Compartment - Kennedy Space Center - 1985

That star-dusted trail carried our dreams and our realities. It was just as exciting to hear the double sonic boom announcing a return flight. There was joy in knowing that fellow astronauts and friends, my space family, were coming home after orbiting the planet at 17,500 miles per hour every 90 minutes.

First Fleet captures the glory of the early flights of the Space Shuttle program. Similar to the engineers who developed new procedures and systems to send humans to space in a reusable rocket turned glider, John developed ingenious systems and techniques to capture her magnificence on the pad, during launch, and returning back to Earth upon landing.

This compilation of images inspires me to believe again in the power of people coming together to create things bigger than themselves to help advance our civilization. It inspires me to continue exploring, to leap over barriers and discover our next great mission.

Challenger - Roll Over Orbiter Processing Facility - 1985
Challenger - Roll Over Orbiter Processing Facility - 1985

Leland Melvin

Leland Melvinis an engineer and NASA astronaut and former wide receiver for the Detroit Lions. He served on the space shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist and was named the NASA Associate Administrator for Education in October 2010. He also served as the co-chair on the White House’s Federal Coordination in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Task Force, developing the nation’s five-year STEM education plan.

John Chakeres

John Chakeres has been an artist working in photography for more than 40 years. His photographs have been included in numinous exhibitions and publications and are in a number of permanent collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, and many more.