First Fleet: NASA’s Space Shuttle Program 1981-1986

Local Artist John Chakeres has been working in Photography as an image builder for over 40 years. From exhibiting his work at numerous galleries to teaching photography, printmaking, and digital imaging at Ohio University, Columbus College of Art and Design, and Columbus State Community College, his art records reflected light. He is currently working on, First Fleet, an enduring photographic portrait of the early years of NASA’s Space Shuttle programs.


The First Fleet book project began more than 30 years ago with the launch of the first Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981. You could say this project began over 50 years ago in 1961 when I was nine years old and watched the first American go into space. As a young boy I became fascinated with man going into space and it also inspired my interest in photography. I would set my father’s Rolleiflex camera in front of the television set and photograph the launches. As I got older, I never lost my love or fascination with manned spaceflight.

Discovery Mission 41G – Shoreline Cape Road – 1985. John Chakeres.

By 1973 NASA had completed the Project Apollo and Skylab programs and there were no manned spaceflights for nearly 10 years, until the launch of the first Space Shuttle in 1981. I saw an opportunity for a photographic project about the Space Shuttle and I contacted NASA with my proposal. I eventually got permission to photograph the Shuttle operations at the Kennedy Space Center and in 1981 I began my five-year project photographing the Space Shuttle.

Discovery – Sunset Launch Complex 39A -1984. John Chakeres

As an artist, I wanted to create images that were both majestic, symbolic, and gave the viewer a sense of what was required to fly such a complex piece of technology. The idea was to do more of a portrait of the Space Shuttle. I have always been interested in technology and how technology is used to create things. The fact the Space Shuttle was the most complex machine ever created compelled me to photograph it. The Space Shuttle, in one sense, was a piece of sculpture to me. I was intrigued by how its design created a unique looking vehicle, and its final form was determined by its function. I soon discovered, to be able to get the photographs I envisioned would require me to invent tools to capture them. Using the original Apple Macintosh computer, I designed remote camera triggering devices to start the motor driven cameras at the moment of launch. I also designed housings to protect the cameras from the harsh Florida environment. I soon realized this project was bigger and more complex then anything I had ever done before, and to do it properly it would require many years of dedication.

Discovery – KSC Shuttle Landing Facility Runway 15 – 1984. John Chakeres
Discovery Mission 51A – Launch Complex 39A Remote Site 1 – 1984. John Chakeres
Challenger – Roll Over Orbiter Processing Facility – 1985. John Chakeres
Discovery Mission 51G – Launch Sunrise Lagoon – 1985. John Chakeres
Atlantis – Roll Back Launch Complex 39A – 1985. John Chakeres
Atlantis Arrival – Vertical Stabilizer – Kennedy Space Center – 1985. John Chakeres

The project was never finished. It ended with the Challenger accident in 1986. It was hard to continue the work after witnessing this accident, and I decided to set the project aside. For more the twenty-five years these negatives were kept in storage and never printed. Shuttle flights resumed in 1988 and the last Shuttle mission was launched in 2011. With the program now part of history, I was encouraged by friends and colleagues to revisit the project. So, in the summer of 2013 I decided to bring the negatives out of storage and begin scanning them and making prints.

Challenger – Sunrise – 1985. John Chakeres

As I scanned the negatives and rediscovered these photographs, I began to think about what compelled me to make them. 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. Every spaceflight seemed to be the first at something, 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 with the Space Shuttle, the firsts continued. The Space Shuttle was the first reusable manned spacecraft, the first to launch and retrieve satellites while in a space, the first to launch an American woman into space. And, between 1981 and 1986 NASA had four operational Space Shuttles, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis. Those four vehicles comprised the first fleet of manned spacecraft, hence the title for the book.

Columbia Return – Crew Compartment – Kennedy Space Center – 1985. John Chakeres
Discovery Mission 41D – Launch Sequence – 1984. John Chakeres

I see these photographs as a time capsule of a unique time in the history of manned spaceflight. Between 1981 and 1986, the Shuttle program went from an R&D program to a fully operational commercial space program. Those early years were filled with excitement and optimism about the future of space travel. With every launch I witnessed, it felt like I had a front row seat to the future. It was this excitement I hoped to capture in these photographs. The same excitement I felt when I was a little kid watching Alan Shepard and John Glenn go into space. First Fleet is my way of paying homage to all the men and women who built and flew the Space Shuttle. And how they inspired me to live a creative life.


Daylight Books will publish First Fleet in fall of 2018. They are a nonprofit organization dedicated to publishing art and photography books. By exploring the documentary mode along with the more conceptual concerns of fine art, Daylight’s uniquely collectible publications work to revitalize the relationship between art, photography, and the world at large.


The book will contain a foreword by former astronaut, Leland Melvin, and an introduction by photography curator and collector, W. M. Hunt.  Publishing a book of this nature involves a partnership between the artist and the publishers and often requires the artist to make a financial contribution to offset the high cost of production.  I am currently running a KickStarter campaign to help fund the book.  With your support, it will ensure this book becomes an important record of a unique period in the history of manned spaceflight.  Please consider supporting my Kickstarter campaign.  Thank you for your time and consideration.


You can view more of John’s work at 


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