In 1961, at the age of eight, John Chakeres watched the televised broadcast of Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr.’s launch into space aboard the Freedom 7 space capsule. The excitement of witnessing this historic event – Shepard was the first American astronaut to make a sub-orbital flight – never left Chakeres. The event also triggered his interest in photography. He would set his father’s Rolleiflex camera in front of the television set and photograph the space launches.
In the ‘70s, Chakeres embarked on a career in professional photography, and in 1981 he contacted NASA proposing a long-term project to document the Space Shuttle program. NASA granted Chakeres permission to photograph the Shuttle operations at the Kennedy Space Center, and he began his five-year project capturing the launch and landing operations of the four original space shuttles: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis.
Using the original Apple Macintosh computer, he designed remote camera triggering devices to start the motor driven cameras at the moment of launch. Chakeres created images that were “majestic, symbolic, and gave the viewer a sense of what was required to fly such a complex piece of machinery and technology,” writes the publisher, Daylight, in the press release.
Sadly, Chakeres’s project ended prematurely with the Challenger accident in 1986. It was too painful for him to continue the work after witnessing this tragedy, and he set the project aside. For more than 25 years he kept his negatives in storage. Then, in the summer of 2013 he decided to revisit them.
As Chakeres rediscovered the photographs, he began to think about what compelled him to make them. He writes: “I think what captured my imagination the most about the early days of manned spaceflight was the fact that every mission did something that had never been done before: the first American in space, the first American to orbit the earth, the first American to walk in space, the first man on the moon…And, between 1981 and 1986 NASA had four operational Space Shuttles, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis. Those four vehicles comprised the First Fleet which is the title of my book.”