The space shuttle Atlantis sits silent and still on the launch pad, as if pausing to gather its strength for its final flight into the heavens. Seen from a distance, it’s a small white mark against a baby-blue sky blanketed with cotton-ball clouds. There’s something very Zen about this image.
Inside the firing room, however, the mood is anything but meditative. NASA personnel enunciate commands into headsets and anxiously raise their eyes to gaze through the floor-to-ceiling windows as a giant countdown clock ticks toward zero.
Amid this adrenalized atmosphere, photographer Bill Ingalls snaps away, capturing shot after shot in quick-fire succession. He only has a few seconds to document what is happening.
Atlantis’ liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 8, 2011, will mark the end of NASA’s 30-year-old shuttle program, so history is literally unfolding before his eyes. If he shoots too late, calibrates his settings incorrectly or frames his pictures poorly, the chance to capture this momentous occasion is gone forever. It’s high-stress work, but Ingalls lives for moments like this.
Since 1989, he’s been commuting across the Potomac from his home in Fairlington—often by bike—to his job as senior photographer at NASA headquarters in Southwest D.C. Part of his work is to oversee the space agency’s vast photographic archives, which stretch all the way back to its inception in 1958 and include everything from the first lunar landing to shots taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Sometimes Ingalls travels farther afield to various points on the globe to photograph blastoffs, landings, celestial phenomena and NASA projects of every stripe. For one assignment, he was flown into the eye of a storm to document weather scientists at work; for another, he found himself inside an active volcano. One of his most significant series of photos documents the U.S.-Russian collaboration on the Soyuz spacecraft missions, which transport astronauts from both nations to and from the International Space Station. He’s also met plenty of celebrities and world leaders. But when he’s kicking back at home on a weekend, his favorite subject is one that doesn’t require special clearances or VIP access: his dog.