NASA has just released some fascinating and mesmerizing footage shot by cameras attached to the booster rockets that lifted space shuttle Endeavour into orbit earlier this month.
Of course, there's been a lot of amazing film from space over the years (some of which I've recently encountered for the first time, thanks to a Netflix stream of a Discovery Channel documentary I missed when it originally aired).
There's Ed White's stunning spacewalk, the first-ever by an American. And the strangely moving footage shot from the Eagle as it lifted off from the moon to carry Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin back to the Columbia command module, which in turn would carry them and Michael Collins back home to Earth. In that last sequence, we see the American flag blasted by exhaust from the Eagle's ascent engine and shuddering crazily as it's left behind. (You can catch glimpses of both White's spacewalk and the Eagle's moon departure here--the former at 0:26; the latter at 0:31.)
In comparison to much of the known imagery, this newly released footage is rather mundane: No lone humans tottering vulnerably about in space, impossibly far from their home planet; no state symbols standing humbly yet grandiosely above a newly footprinted lunar surface; no tragic fireballs on liftoff or re-entry, declaring immutably the loss of all hands. And yet this footage has its own power, and it rewards the patient.
In some ways, it's reminiscent of the film that circulated on the Net awhile back of a father and son's project to send a small balloon into space equipped with an HD video camera and a GPS device. Of course, cameras attached to giant rockets that burn 11,000 pounds of fuel per second tend to leave the Earth much more quickly than do balloons. And there are a lot more fireworks to be seen as well. Still, the footage goes on and on, with the spacecraft climbing higher and higher and the clouds below growing tinier and tinier, and this helps give a powerful impression of the vastness, and loneliness, of space.
And the impression is underlined when the shuttle separates from the solid rocket boosters and their tagalong cameras, leaving them alone to tumble back down to Earth. The familiar-looking spacecraft arcs away; the roaring of the rockets dies out, leaving only silence; and the camera spins away from the blue of the oceans to face the blackness of space.
Regardless of the mundanity of much of the footage, the odd angles produced by the mounting of the cameras do make for some surprising images, and the ambient sound produces a weird effect as well. For though the sound drops out after the separation of the boosters, in some of the sections here, it reappears in a ghostly way as the boosters fall toward re-entry.
Shuttle Endeavour rockets into orbit on its final flight
Photos: The final flight of Endeavour
Photos: Endeavour flights
One particularly strange--well nigh psychedelic--section of the footage begins at about 16:40, with an eerie moaning sound. It's a Hollywood sound designer's fever dream, as we hear spooky breathing noises; creaking and groaning; a banshee wail. And the cinematographer isn't doing too well, either: The Earth starts spinning and warping; spiky lens flares streak out from the sun; a trail of smoke from the other lost booster angles across the frame.
Then all goes black but for two demonlike eyes of light. A dragon growls. Then: all black. A sudden explosion of light and a raptor's scream. A strange symbol appears and metamorphoses into jellyfish, mushrooms, space flowers, parachutes. A last wrenching clank of sound as a setting sun appears and we splash down into the Atlantic, the parachutes settling into the sea.
Stanley Kubrick couldn't have done it any better.
This is raw footage, so as mentioned, it goes on and on. If nothing else, watch a liftoff or two and the trippy section described above (which starts at about 16:40--and ends at 19:41). Some other highlights:
- first camera angle of booster separation (about 2:20)
- second angle of booster separation (about 9:34--pictured above)
- third angle of separation, with the opposite booster arcing (and sparking) away (about 14:49)
- condensation on lens produces a bit of fireworks (about 20:15)
- the sun creeps across Endeavor's belly (about 28:30)
- from drifting through the clouds to plunging underwater (about 31:10).
If you're in a contemplative mood and don't mind being mesmerized, drift your way through the whole set of clips. During the quiet parts, you can play some Pink Floyd, or maybe SOMA FM's Drone Zone. Here are the video's various "chapters." Enjoy.
- 0:00 -- left forward camera
- 7:21 -- left aft
- 14:23 -- left intertank
- 19:43 -- right forward
- 26:43 -- right aft
- 31:53 -- right intertank