Dream of Endeavour

By Phil Plait | May 17, 2011 12:48 pm

When the Shuttle Endeavour launched yesterday at 08:56 EDT from Kennedy Space Center, I was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean flying home. Had I been a few hundred kilometers farther south I might have spotted it, assuming I was awake and on the left side of the plane. But some things are hard to plan.

Happily, photographer Trey Ratcliff thought ahead a bit more than I did, and took this astonishing picture of Endeavour roaring into the sky for the last time:

Sigh. So lovely! And so dreamlike… but that’s because he shot several photos and combined them using High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing. In a nutshell, you take three exposures. In one, you set the exposures and other settings for the dim parts of the scene, in another you expose for the brighter parts, and in a third you take the medium road. Combining them leads to this other-worldly, ethereal picture quality. [Update: as Trey himself notes in the comments below, this particular shot was not multiple-frame HDR, but shot as a single image. I assumed it was multiple shot HDR because a) he’s written tutorials about it and 2) it really looked like it to me! Mea culpa.]

I love how the Shuttle’s flame lights up the clouds, and the trail of smoke draws your eye from the bottom of the frame right into the spot where the cloud is afire. In my mind the mushroom-cloud symbolism is strong, but not on purpose and there’s no real obvious metaphoric connection. Funny though.

Trey’s other images are equally amazing and well worth your time perusing, too. You should also check out the pictures taken by Stefanie Gordon, who did happen to have a view from an airplane, and who tweeted her shots. They’re really cool!

Image credit: Trey Ratcliff (used under Creative Commons licensing). Tip o’ the lens cap to my pal Lila Mae (warning: she swears a lot and is generally saucy).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (30)

  1. Kevin Baird

    These prove that even the cloud-covered launches are amazing. Here’s a unique view of the plume’s shadow on the thin cloud layer which, alongside Stefanie’s image, gives an interesting above-and-below perspective.

  2. Utakata

    For a moment there I thought I was looking at a very skinny active volcano. O.O

  3. This one comes from a single RAW file, actually… You can make HDR photos without needing multiple source images. I have it all there in the HDR tutorial at stuckincustoms.com/HDR-tutorial

  4. There’s also an incredible video doing the rounds on Twitter of this very same angle and the sight Endeavour makes as it breaches the cloud cover is beautiful: http://t.co/jY9eoRk

  5. It looks like that shot of Minas Morgul, except that it doesn’t look fake!

  6. Tuttle

    And I shall ride into heaven upon a pillar of fire.

  7. Michael Caligiuri

    This is a great shot as well. http://Twitpic.com/4yg4ur

  8. Has anybody seen this yet? Truly far out, methinks.


  9. Joel

    At the bottom of all of this is Natalie Portman, crashing her car into a very bewildered Norse God.

  10. Messier Tidy Upper

    Superluminous image. Thanks BA – & hope you had a great trip. :-)

    Over the years the Space Shuttles sure have provided us with some wonderful moments and beautiful, surprising and glorious images.

    Such as this one :


    & this one :


    and this one :


    To mention just three. :-)

  11. Crudely Wrott

    Phil writes:

    In my mind the mushroom-cloud symbolism is strong, but not on purpose and there’s no real obvious metaphoric connection. Funny though.

    Not unexpected, Phil. A mass of hot gas will rise through a cooler gas in much the same mushroom manner. And at many scales.

    On the high end, volcanic eruptions and atom bombs. Medium scales, thunderstorms and bunkerbusters. Smaller still, stump blasting and games with black powder.

    I’ve also noticed mushroom clouds when making smoke signals, lighting torches and playing with cigarettes and smoldering twigs.

    Somewhere there are an elegant few lines of mathematics that describe how this happens.

    Phil, I bet’cha that this even happens on astronomical scales. Maybe jets of plasma from the poles of certain objects? Ring any bells?

  12. Crudely Wrott

    Forgive my oversight, Phil. I should have included earth impactors under my “high end” category. My opia, my mistake.

    *don’t know how I let that slip*

  13. Grand Lunar


    Great work by Mr. Ratcliff, especially with the timing of this.

    Be nice if for the launch of Atlantis that it passes through a sundog, like the Atlas 5 that carried SDO did.

  14. The Mad LOLScientist

    Wow. Just wow.

  15. TTS

    I’am disappointed both your explanations of the photo. Process to turn images “pretty” is called tone mapping e.g. it’s algorithm to lighten dark parts of photo, and vice versa, darken light parts. Of course if image’s dynamic range is limited, those parts are one colored (over and under exposed) and for this High Dynamic Range is needed (e.g. combine multiple exposure). Trey’s photo is not really HDR photo having only maximum bit depth of original RAW image, so this is just tone mapped SDR photo. You both know this and this is science blog so…

    (And now rant: I find original, only light curve corrected, photos more moving. Those photos have some contrast unlike most tone mapped (pastel puke) HDRIs, end of rant)

  16. grem

    About an hour ago I saw two lights drift low across the northern sky. The brightest being the international space station and less bright the shuttle Endeavor approaching to link up. They passed into the earths shadow 1100kms north east of me in Sydney and 340Kms above Fraser Island off the coast of Queensland. It was great to see both together before they docked. I look forward to seeing them every night for at least the next 10 days.

    Great sight.

  17. Steve Paluch

    I can use the blur tool in Photoshop too.

  18. Pepijn

    @Trey: wouldn’t it have been impossible to make an HDR image from multiple exposures of a scene like this, anyway? Since the Shuttle and the smoke it leaves behind are moving so fast, so every exposure would be radically different?

  19. TTS

    #19: Is that bit low Steve Paluch? Trey’s photos are technically flawless when, your flickr account have many noisy and somewhat unfocused pictures…. Pot and kettle…

  20. The Mutt

    I saw a night launch on an overcast night. (I was in Orlando.) The pillar a fire rose until it passed through the clouds, then the entire sky turned orange.

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    @15. Grand Lunar :

    Incredible! Great work by Mr. Ratcliff, especially with the timing of this. Be nice if for the launch of Atlantis that it passes through a sundog, like the Atlas 5 that carried SDO did.

    You mean this clip here? :


    See via this blog with Dr Plait’s commentary or see :


    direct on Youtube.

    Yeah, it sure would be! 8)

    That’s still one of the best spacecraft launch video’s I’ve ever seen – & I love such video’s and watch all of them that I possibly can! :-)

    BTW. Today’s Aussie newspaper (page 9, The Australian, 2011 May 19th, ) has noted a series of photos and images of the Endeavour‘s launch taken from a jet airliner – similar to this one :


    which has, apparently, become quite a big hit on the interwebs. :-)

  22. Zoey

    Personally, this image makes me think 0f the TNG opening sequence, rather than a mushroom cloud. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fL8nnMpV2Eo#t=37s

  23. Zoey

    Actually, come to think of it, it also reminds me of this quote from Penn Jillette: “Comedy timing is the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound over 3.7 miles at sea level: 17.505 seconds.”

  24. I’ve been a fan of Trey for some time now. I’ve also been listening to him on the Mostly Photo Podcast.

  25. TripCyclone

    You should really check out these photos, taken by one of the pilots on the plane. She had a heads up that they might be close and began taking photos right after it punched through the clouds. There’s a link to more photos as well:


  26. MadADDer

    Great picture, but I can’t help but wonder where the Blue Portal is.

  27. The Mad LOLScientist, FCD

    Upside down tornado is upside down – & spewing out everything it would be sucking up if it were right side up. =^..^=


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