Doctor's image of space shuttle Columbia becomes iconic


EAST TEXAS (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - It was a cool East Texas winter morning with blue skies from horizon to horizon, typical of a February day.

On Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, completing a 16-day mission and returning seven Astronauts back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I grew up as a dedicated fan of our country's space program, and of the various manned programs leading to the moon shots. I even took my daughter, Deandra, to Space Camp in Alabama to participate in an interesting father-daughter activity, built around the shuttle program. I continued to follow the events of NASA even when the news coverage of the flights had long since become routine and minimal.

The night before Columbia's return, I looked at predicted flight tracks and was excited to note that it could fly over East Texas, just to the south of Tyler itself. This was uncommon. The shuttles often flew to Florida over Panama or Mexico and then the Gulf of Mexico on their return, so this approach was rare.

As a cardiologist, I was on coverage that weekend with my partner, Dr. Alex Petrakian, and our task was to take emergency calls and make rounds at Tyler hospitals.

By 6 a.m., it appeared Columbia was going to try to return on the first available orbit, and I was happy because it meant that it would pass by Tyler by 8 a.m. and I would still be able to see it before work.

Shortly before 7 a.m., Columbia turned tail first and fired her main engines for a short burn that would decelerate her enough to fall out of orbit. After that, she was committed to re-entry and a pass over East Texas.

But the crew was unaware of a launch incident: A piece of insulating foam from the external fuel tank had broken off and damaged the left wing, damage that likely had sealed the crew's fate.

Six months earlier, I had acquired a Canon digital single lens reflex camera, which had a huge sensor (for the time), of 6 megapixels. It is important to note that at that time, there was a significant debate in the blogosphere about using digital cameras for news at all. While digital images were being used to some extent in photojournalism for newspapers, film images still were the preferred standard, especially for the glossy news magazines like TIME or Newsweek. Other than listening to the debate, I never thought it mattered much to me. Publishing images in the news media was not something I had done since I was a section editor of our college newspaper. But I enjoyed getting into making images with this new technology.

Several years earlier we had seen a re-entry of a shuttle over East Texas in the evening and it was spectacular. It was a greenish, glowing fireball, streaking across the sky. I was really looking forward to the chance to get some images this time around. I was not, however, thinking about the news business at the time. I assumed that the images I was hoping to take would be a treasure for my family. You never know what turn life is going to take. A little before 8 a.m., my wife Robyn, son, Mason, and I went out to our back yard to wait for Columbia, with the still camera, a small video camera and binoculars.

Shortly afterward and right on time, I saw the streak of light, with the contrail behind it rising in the sky, as if coming from Dallas and heading to the Southeast. I started the video camera, which my wife then held, and I started taking still photos, with both a wide-angle lens and a zoom lens. While I was busy taking pictures and changing lenses, my wife, who was looking at the screen on the video camera said, "Is it supposed to look like it is breaking up?" I could make out a parallel contrail, which is what I thought she was referring to. Initially, it looked fairly normal. The path came out of the west and moved east as expected. After it passed, we went inside with only a quick look at the images. I was pleased that they looked in-focus and was turning my attention to going to work.

The TV was on the network news, and they were still talking about the upcoming landing. About four minutes later, after the fly over, the sonic booms hit. Normally it would have been two loud discrete sounds. However, what we heard was a long increasing rumble getting louder for about a minute and then quieter. It was not what I expected, and I put together what my wife had said with that sound and ran back to the camera, this time looking closer at the images. After zooming in, I could clearly see multiple contrails and falling debris. On TV, the announcers were starting to say that Columbia was "running a little late." It cannot run late. Even landing is timed to the second. It was then that I was certain that we had witnessed the breakup of the spacecraft, and I felt my throat drop as into my stomach.

Having gone to Edward R Murrow High School in New York City, it might only be natural that I had an interest in journalism, too. I had been on the newspaper staff there, as I had in college as well. My first instinct was that these images needed to be shared, so I reached out to all the media outlets here in town. Within moments I contacted the folks at the Tyler Morning Telegraph, who asked me to bring the images in. I checked with my medical partner, and learned that all was quiet at the hospitals; and my life's unexpected shift had begun.

I soon headed over to the Morning Telegraph. After they reviewed the pictures, I got to meet Jim Giametta, editor. He suggested letting the Associated Press see the images, and I agreed that was a good idea. Shortly after the AP moved the images on its wire, the Morning Telegraph began receiving phone calls from TIME magazine and others. Through a series of calls, they expressed a strong interest in buying the images, but they wanted exclusivity for their use. I was concerned because I felt the images needed distribution. By this point I had met on the phone with Ron Heflin of the Dallas bureau of the AP and Bob Daugherty, then director of the AP State Photo Center in Washington, D.C. They helped manage these images. Bob assured me that the AP was the way to go for widest distribution, and I agreed to the revenue share arrangement they offered. Some years later Bob told me that our deal was one of the easiest he had in his career at AP. Over the years they have become great friends of ours. Ron and his wife Sue are extended family now, and I went to D.C. for the celebration when Bob retired. It really was an easy decision and I opted to let the AP keep the images and let them handle TIME.

They ended up using the image on its cover anyway, even without the exclusive. The rest of Feb. 1, 2003, was such a blur. I gave many interviews over the phone and to TV news teams from Louisiana and Oklahoma that came to East Texas to cover the story.

I made it to the hospitals and got my rounds done, and got home after one last interview that day in the hospital lobby for a TV crew. My wife had told me that she saw the images on the web pages of Yahoo and AOL. But we had not understood yet the reach that those images were to have. I got a call from my partner, Alex, who told me that he had family members who had seen the picture in their local newspaper. Apparently the New York Times had started a print run with images from a TV video from Dallas, but the presses were stopped and the front page was redone with our photos. Extra editions of newspapers featuring that image came out that afternoon in Florida and Houston. Some of the Florida papers ran it on their banner for a week.

By Sunday morning, as we would later learn, more than 1,400 newspapers worldwide ran those images on their front pages. By Monday, doctors I work with at the hospitals who had family members worldwide were calling in to see if they knew me. They had all seen the picture, my name and the city of Tyler's name. The AP later estimated that 2.4 billion people saw them in the first 24 hours after the accident. By Sunday afternoon, a crew from LA's "Inside Edition" TV show was at the house for an interview. I don't think I could ever have anticipated the impact those images had before this happened.

There were a few fairly emotional moments when it really hit. Early Monday morning, my nurse, Denise, brought me a copy of the TIME, and seeing the image as large as it was on the cover really hit home. The magnitude of the image's impact and the sense of loss for the crew were a little overwhelming. Another moment occurred a few months later while in Washington, D.C., for a meeting. A nurse at the hospital, who had been there the week before had told me that the picture was in the Library of Congress, so I went to go look for myself. Seeing the front page of the Tyler paper on display, and my name on the information card in a museum-like gallery, next to the classic image of the Wright Brothers' first flight, was not something for which you can prepare.

The picture won a few awards. The Texas AP Managing Editors gave it an award for Spot News Photography. The AP submitted the images to the Pulitzer Prize committee, but it did not win that year; it's hard for a single image to beat a team's coverage of the Iraq invasion. But perhaps more important than awards are the fact of the unique record that the images likely hold. According to Daugherty, it was "the single widest-used image to illustrate a breaking news event of all time." In an article about the picture, The Poynter Institute called it "the digital image that played around the World."In some ways it was a touchstone point in the news business. It ended the debate about the role of digital cameras for getting published in magazines, as it was among the first digital images on the cover of TIME and across two pages inside of Newsweek. By the end of 2003, there were almost no dark rooms to develop pictures in newsrooms anymore.

Poynter called it the "Digital Icon." It likely marked the end of film as well.

That image began my now 10-year relationship with the Tyler Morning Telegraph and the AP. I studied press images, learned to caption, developed better photographic techniques, got better cameras and studied the AP style. I had learned the power of sharing images. Having been bitten by the bug, I started to contribute images to the AP. I have continued a relationship with AP as a freelancer and independent photographic contributor, and now have thousands of images in the archives. One of the requests I made with Daugherty when I gave them the images was my desire to cover the return to flight of the shuttle program. While I missed that first return to fight launch of the shuttle Discovery, I was at the Cape in Florida for its landing, which unfortunately had to occur in California instead. Nevertheless, I did make it to two launches and was on the shuttle landing facility for the final touchdown of Atlantis to close out the shuttle era. I can't tell you how many mixed emotions that created. Along the way I have gotten to know and shoot images alongside some great people from the press. Several have been mentors to me, and I appreciate their time and their skill.

Over the years I have had the privilege to photograph many celebrities, politicians and events. I have had other front-page images that ran in papers all over the world, but nothing like that first one. I might never win a Pulitzer or have an image of that kind of impact again, but I enjoy contributing images that tell stories or show our world to people.


To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment