Look Back in Awe

Space Shuttle: Just for the wow of it, an onboard shuttle cam lifts off.

by Photographs courtesy of NASA
Photographs courtesy of NASA

**(Left) RocketCam gave viewers 2 minutes of stunning footage before propellant smudged the view. No word when the camera will next be deployed. Ignition: Engines fire, 4.5-million- pound shuttle lifts off. 10 seconds: Already traveling at 120 mph, the shuttle clears the tower. 48 seconds: At 750 mph, 2 miles downrange, shuttle breaks sound barrier. 126 seconds: Just before SRB separation, 26 miles downrange, 2,800 mph.

The camera, mounted in pricey unit on cable tray near top of external tank (bottom left), is encased in foam-covered aerodynamic housing.**

After two decades of watching identical shuttle liftoffs from Kennedy Space Center (with one horrible exception) fans finally get a new angle from which to appreciate the spectacle, thanks to an onboard camera mounted above the orbiter on the external fuel tank.

The camera, named RocketCam and built by CrossLink Inc. (which has since sold the product to Ecliptic Enterprises Corp.), made its debut with the launch of space shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-112 this October 7. Though there were several jarring interruptions by NASA producers-who cut away to exterior views at all the best moments-the camera produced breathtaking wide-angle images of the rapidly receding space center and Florida coastline. "We wanted to share what is really a thrilling event," NASA spokesman Rob Navias says, "and I must say it was pretty stunning."

RocketCam is an off-the-shelf industrial Sony model built into a highly specialized protective casing at a cost of roughly $750,000 (regular use should bring the price down to about $100,000). It is positioned near the top of the external fuel tank and aimed downward. The perspective promised first-ever onboard views of the solid rocket booster separation 2 minutes into the flight, as well as the orbiter detaching from the external tank 5 minutes later. The camera performed flawlessly from liftoff, but its positioning on the external tank, in the path of the propellants from small rockets that assist in the SRB separation, led to residue smudging and robbed viewers of as many as 15 more minutes of the ride to space. "That was the only thing that disappointed us," says Rex Ridenoure, CEO of Ecliptic Enterprises. "We knew it was going to happen, but NASA didn't think it would." He adds that he will encourage NASA to move the camera on future launches. It could be two years before we see this again, though. At press time, the camera wasn't even scheduled into future launch manifests. "We wanted to wait and see how the public responded to it," Navias says.