CLC dean captures shuttle history in photos

Updated 8/30/2011 3:54 PM
  • One of the space shuttles on the launchpad.

    One of the space shuttles on the launchpad. Courtesy of Roland Miller

  • A space shuttle awaiting an early-morning launch.

    A space shuttle awaiting an early-morning launch. Courtesy of Roland Miller

  • A look inside the cockpit of the space shuttle.

    A look inside the cockpit of the space shuttle. Courtesy of Roland Miller

  • Roland Miller, dean of communication arts at the College of Lake County.

    Roland Miller, dean of communication arts at the College of Lake County. Courtesy of Roland Miller

  • Final preparations under way for another space shuttle launch.

    Final preparations under way for another space shuttle launch. Courtesy of Roland Miller

When the space shuttle Atlantis made its final landing this month, it marked the turning of a page in the county's history of space exploration. While many aren't exactly sure what the next chapter will hold, space enthusiasts are looking back fondly on their memories of the shuttle program, many of which were caught on camera by Roland Miller.

Miller, dean of communication arts at the College of Lake County, has attended and photographed nearly 100 shuttle launches and is working on shooting photos of abandoned launchpads around the country.

Growing up in the early years of space exploration in the 1960s, Miller said he was drawn to discovering the new frontier just like millions of other Americans. Later, as an adult teaching photography at a community college near Cape Canaveral, Miller was bitten by the space bug once again.

"It's about dreaming big," Miller said, remembering watching early launches of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. "It was hard not to be captivated. If you got bit by the bug back then, it was hard to get that completely out of your system."

Miller worked with a local planetarium, shooting photographs and meeting people working in the space program. As time went on he was trusted by various people in government and allowed access where many ordinary citizens are not.

"My goal is really to have people see things about the shuttles that they normally wouldn't see," he said.

Though the nation has seen the space program through the lens of television and photo journalists, Miller said he tries to bring a different, more fine arts approach to his photography by focusing in on the smaller aspects of each shuttle.

"These are very artful photographs," said Steven Jones, curator at the Robert T. Wright Art Gallery at CLC where Miller's work was on display. "When you look at the details they are almost like abstract paintings. They have this color, surface and composition that is just so artistic."

Jones said Miller has shown tremendous dedication to his craft over the years, including take a sabbatical last fall to work on his projects.

"People grew up with the idea that we were going into space, and it just been something that intrigues people," Jones said. "As they say, it's the last frontier."

Miller was in Florida for the launch of the last shuttle this month and said the experience was bittersweet.

"If it can save money, that's a good thing," he said. "I just hope we don't go 40 years and look back saying 'Gee, remember when we used to send astronauts into space.'"

As NASA looks at where to go next and how to keep exploring space on a tightened federal budget, Miller said he just hopes there isn't a lapse in exploration.

"There's always the next thing, right now it's just not that obvious what it is," Miller said.

Since 1990 Miller has also been traveling around the country photographing abandoned launch sites used for space exploration, a passion that he said is about remembering where we've come from.

"It's history. It shows the temporal nature of life," he said. "There were places that in their heyday, were the focus of the entire world. Now they are abandoned, overgrown, rusting away. It's a lot like being at an archaeological ruin."

Miller compared the launchpads to historic Civil War battle fields

"On some level, this is where the battles of the Cold War were initially fought," he said.

Although Miller has government clearance to get up close and personal with the space shuttles, financing his hobby is mainly left to him.

"I gave up thinking long ago that this would be a moneymaking thing," Miller said.

He said his family has been very supportive of his frequent trips to Florida, even when it eats up all of his vacation time.

As for that moment when the space shuttle takes off in a ball of light, Miller said that vision is what he'll miss the most.

"You can literally feel the vibrations. It's a quick thing, it's up and gone. It's a pinpoint of light," he said.

Watching Atlantis take off earlier this month, Miller took a break from snapping photos to really feel the moment.

"I made a point at the last launch to pull my face away from my camera and just experience it because I knew this would be my last time," he said. "It's hard to describe in words. And, that's why I take pictures."