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University of Missouri

Failure to Launch

Mizzou alumnus Joel Kowsky captures the failed launch attempt of the Antares rocket

Joel Kowsky Antares rocket explosion

Joel Kowsky, BJ ’10, photographed the Antares rocket Oct. 28, 2014, as it exploded during a launch at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Orbital Sciences Corp. developed the rocket to launch the Cygnus, which was also destroyed. The automated cargo spacecraft carried about 5,000 pounds of supplies, including science experiments and provisions, for the International Space Station crew. No one was on board Cygnus, and no one was injured in the explosion. Kowsky is a photographer and photo editor for NASA in Washington, D.C.

MIZZOU magazine asked photographer Joel Kowsky, BJ ’10, about his work:

Q: Because you work for NASA, I have to ask: Did you want to be an astronaut growing up?

A: I did, but what kid doesn’t have dreams of being an astronaut? Contributing to NASA’s visual history is the next best thing I can do. I can only hope that one of my images might inspire someone in the current generation of kids to pursue a career in science or engineering or to become an astronaut themselves.

joel kowsky

A reflection of the audience can been seen in the quarantine glass as Expedition 40 flight engineer Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency, left; Soyuz commander Maxim Suraev of the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos, center; and flight engineer Reid Wiseman of NASA, right, pose for a group picture at the conclusion of a press conference May 27, 2014, at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The mission to the International Space Station launched May 29 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Q: What went through your mind when the Antares rocket exploded? How did the explosion change the way you captured the scene?

A: We shoot the launches at Wallops, which is about two miles from the pad, so I was watching everything happen through a 600 mm lens. As it unfolded, I just kept shooting. I was so focused on making pictures that as I was making the last one — a wide shot as the cloud from the explosion billowed upward — a police officer yelled in my direction, ordering me to leave. It wasn’t until that moment I realized I was the last person still standing there.

The events didn’t change the way I approached the scene. If anything, I put more pressure on myself to do the best job I could in documenting what was happening.

joel kowsky

Expedition 40 Soyuz commander Maxim Suraev of the Russian Federal Space Agency, left, and flight engineer Reid Wiseman of NASA, right, playfully interact with family members after having their Russian Sokol suits pressure checked in preparation for the launch of the Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft May 28, 2014, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soyuz spacecraft with Suraev, Wiseman, and flight engineer Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency launched May 29.

Q: When people think of NASA, they think of astronauts, rockets and space travel. What other things do you photograph?

A: I’ve photographed everything from press conferences and awards ceremonies to official portraits and passport pictures. Because I’m based in Washington, D.C., I also cover hearings with NASA officials on Capitol Hill and the occasional event at the White House. I get a unique look at what goes on behind the scenes at the agency.

joel kowsky

Expedition 40 of the Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft launches at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan May 29, 2014. Maxim Suraev of the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos; flight engineer Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency; and flight engineer Reid Wiseman of NASA, spent the five and a half months aboard the International Space Station.

Q: Where did your interest in working for NASA come from, and how did you make that interest a reality? What role did your Mizzou photojournalism education play?

A: History has always been a big interest of mine, which was really what drew me into a greater interest in space. The Space Shuttle program was winding down during my senior year at Mizzou, and I decided to make a trip to Florida for one of the final space shuttle launches. I approached Assistant Professor Brian Kratzer, MA ’05, about applying for a media credential through the Columbia Missourian. We both thought it was a long shot, but it was approved. That trip led to about a dozen more.

It had been in the back of my mind about how cool it would be to work at NASA, but I never thought the opportunity would come. Mizzou gave me a solid foundation of skills and experiences that I continue to build upon. It took a lot of work to get to this point, and I’m indebted to everyone who helped me along the way.

joel kowsky

Spectators watch as the Antares rocket with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard successfully launches from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, July 13, 2014. The Cygnus spacecraft was filled with more than 3,000 pounds of supplies for the International Space Station.

Q: What was it like transitioning from being predominantly a sports photographer to working with NASA?

A: The content might have changed a bit, but the hustle involved is the same. The challenge I really enjoyed with photographing sports was trying to make an image that was different from what everyone else was making. The same holds true for many of my assignments for NASA. After getting what is needed, I have the flexibility to try to make something unique. The biggest change has been working normal hours — most of the time at least.

joel kowsky

A train rolls the Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft out to the launch pad Sept. 23, 2014, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soyuz launched Sept. 26 and carried Expedition 41 Soyuz commander Alexander Samokutyaev of the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos; flight engineer Barry Wilmore of NASA; and flight engineer Elena Serova of Roscosmos into orbit to begin their five and a half month mission on the International Space Station.

Q: Let’s say you are offered a spot on a one-way trip to Mars to document the first attempt at colonizing the planet. Do you take it?

A: I don’t think I could go on a one‐way trip. I’m not ready for that one trip to be the last thing I document.

joel kowsky

Expedition 41 flight engineer Barry Wilmore of NASA waves farewell to family and friends as he departs the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, to suit-up for the Soyuz launch to the International Space Station Sept. 25, 2014.

joel kowsky

Expedition 41 Soyuz commander Alexander Samokutyaev of the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos, bottom; flight engineer Barry Wilmore of NASA, middle; and flight engineer Elena Serova of Roscosmos, top, wave farewell prior to boarding the Soyuz TMA-14M for launch Sept. 25, 2014, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Samokutyaev, Serova, and Wilmore spent the next five and a half months aboard the International Space Station. Serova is the fourth Russian woman to fly in space and the first Russian woman to live and work on the station.

joel kowsky

The Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard, is seen at sunset on launch Pad-0A Oct. 25, 2014, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

joel kowsky

NASA administrator Charles Bolden speaks with members of Team Caribbean Splash from Elena L. Christian Jr. High School in the U.S. Virgin Islands, at the fifth White House Science Fair March 23, 2015.