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A picture-perfect moment over L.A.

How a Times photographer captured the space shuttle Endeavour flying past the Hollywood sign.

September 29, 2012
  • Endeavor passes the Hollywood sign (as seen from the U.S. Bank Tower in downtown Los Angeles) as the retired space shuttle makes the rounds of the Los Angeles and Orange County areas before landing at LAX on Sept. 21.
Endeavor passes the Hollywood sign (as seen from the U.S. Bank Tower in downtown… (Los Angeles Times )

The photograph of the space shuttle Endeavour flying past the Hollywood sign during its final flight, which ran in last Saturday's paper, was perfect — so perfect, in fact, that several readers who tried but failed to capture a similar picture raised doubts about its veracity. (For the record, alteration or manipulation of a photo is prohibited by The Times' ethics guidelines.) Reader Andy Serrano of Los Angeles wrote:

"I was at the west end of Mt. Hollywood on a ridge and took photographs at every second of each flyover. In my opinion, there never was any point where any photographer could possibly have photographed the shuttle in front of the Hollywood sign like this. I went there specifically to see if I could capture a scene such as the one shown in The Times, and it was not possible."

Times staff photographer Gary Friedman explains how he got the shot:

As part of a team of more than 20 Times photographers, my position was on the helipad of downtown's 73-story U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. I had a 360-degree view of the city.

Around noon, the shuttle was spotted gliding through the sky. It passed by our vantage point moving west on a flight path that took it past the Hollywood sign. With my camera mounted on a monopod, I kept my hand on the shutter. I chose not to shoot with a longer lens, as I was worried that the shuttle might be out of the frame. The juxtaposition between the shuttle and the Hollywood sign seemed fortuitous. Endeavour made three passes by the Hollywood sign, but no others resulted in the same juxtaposition as that first one.

This was not my first opportunity to photograph a space shuttle. I remember standing on a dusty road outside Edwards Air Force Base northeast of Lancaster with a long lens pointed to the sky in 1983. I heard two sonic booms. Everyone was searching the sky, and then there it was: Challenger. I tried to find it through the camera's lens but my hands were trembling with excitement. Eventually, I was able to locate the fast-moving shuttle and continued to follow Challenger as it came in for a smooth landing.

I took a deep breath and couldn't believe what I had just witnessed. Challenger had come out of the sky, passed through the atmosphere and landed safely; I felt like an excited kid.

It has been a privilege and an honor to photograph the shuttles, whether they were landing, being transported on the streets or (standing practically under one) while they were being serviced. Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, was no different.

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