Photographs by John Chakeres, Essay by Leland Melvin

Published on 08/30/ 2018


John Chakeres and I met at a photography conference called FotoFest in 2008. Our mutual good friend, Melissa Noble, introduced us over lunch, not knowing that very separate paths would come together one day for a common destiny. I have always loved photography. My mother gave me a red leatherclad Petri rangefinder camera in fourth grade for my tenth birthday, and ever since I have been painting with light.
Challenger – Roll Over Head On View -1985

I would never have imagined that forty-four years later it would provide a powerful connection to bind friends together, as we shared our very different perspectives of both photography and space.
Challenger - SpaceLab Orbiter Processing Facility - 1985
Atlantis Arrival - Crew Compartment - Kennedy Space Center - 1985

After Neil and Buzz set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, my childhood friends all wanted to be astronauts. For days they pestered me about their new dreams of riding rockets into space. It seemed that every youngster who had witnessed the amazing technological feat on a rabbit-eared black-and-white TV set wanted to be the next Neil Armstrong, but I had a different hero. I wanted to be tennis great Arthur Ashe. He was a champion, and to a skinny black kid in Lynchburg, Virginia, he was the giant step—leaping over barriers for all humankind.

It was only years later, through a strange twist of fate, that my dreams turned to space and I began to set my own sights, my own lenses— on gaining an orbital perspective.
Atlantis Arrival - Vertical Stabilizer - Kennedy Space Center - 1985
Challenger - Roll Out Crawlerway - 1985

The Moon Landing and the preceding missions were punctuated with discovery, magnificence, and failure as the United States pushed beyond existing limits to send a human to the moon. More than an act of reckless courage, the space program was a resounding victory over our Cold War adversaries.
Discovery Mission 51A - Launch Complex 39A Remote Site 1 - 1984
Discovery Mission 51A - Launch Complex 39A Remote Site 2 Frame 18 - 1984

The Sputnik beep, the first score in the space race, caused fear in many, but it did not crush our hope. We hardened our resolve, galvanized our sense of national pride, worked harder, and gave birth to the Space Coast and a program of never-ending discovery.

The modern workhorse of our space program, the Space Shuttle, flew 135 missions, persevering through setbacks and tragedy to inspire countless men and women to dream of new horizons. These powerful birds deployed satellites, served as a test bed for scientific and medical research, and made it possible to build our orbital outpost, the International Space Station.

I had the privilege to live and work aboard the ISS for twenty-three days—twenty-three days I will never forget.

Discovery Mission 51A - Climb Out Press Site - 1984

Without this space wonder we, as an earthbound civilization, would not have worked together, living off-planet as one family, in our orbital outpost. I had the privilege to live and work aboard the ISS for twenty-three days—twenty-three days I will never forget. I first flew to space on the Shuttle Atlantis in February 2008. The mission was STS-122, and after Atlantis flawlessly docked with the ISS, I used her Canadian robotic arm to install the Columbus Laboratory from the cargo bay, growing the station by one more research module.

In November 2009, on STS-129, I returned to space on Atlantis for my final voyage to the cosmos, when we installed and pre-positioned spare parts so that the mission of exploration would continue, even though NASA had announced that the last planned Shuttle Journey would be STS-135 in July 2011. The Shuttle program was coming to an end; our birds would be flying no more.
Challenger Mission 41B - Climb Out - 1984
Columbia Return - Crew Compartment - Kennedy Space Center - 1985

I feel a sense of pride and gratitude at having been a Shuttle astronaut and was inspired every time I watched Discovery, Columbia, Atlantis, or Endeavour launch and rocket off-planet, leaving a magical trail of exhaust for all to follow to the heavens.

That star-dusted trail carried our dreams and our realities. It was just as exciting to hear the double sonic boom announcing a return flight. There was joy in knowing that fellow astronauts and friends, my space family, were coming home after orbiting the planet at 17,500 miles per hour every 90 minutes.
Discovery Mission 51C - Approach Runway 15 -1985

First Fleet captures the glory of the early flights of the Space Shuttle program. Similar to the engineers who developed new procedures and systems to send humans to space in a reusable rocket turned glider, John developed ingenious systems and techniques to capture her magnificence on the pad, during launch, and returning back to Earth upon landing.

This compilation of images inspires me to believe again in the power of people coming together to create things bigger than themselves to help advance our civilization. It inspires me to continue exploring, to leap over barriers and discover our next great mission.