Lord of Thunder and Light: Aerospace Photographer Mike Killian

Mike Killian captured this image of a massive lightning storm hovering over Launch Complex 39A. In this shot, the space shuttle Discovery sits on the pad as a weather-observing aircraft checks atmospheric conditions. Although the storm would scrub the nights launch attempt - the image would become one of Mike Killian's favorites - and it would help solidify his decision to cover the space program professionally. Photo Courtesy of Mike Killian

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Mike Killian has covered the space program as a photographer for a relatively short time. He has only been at it for about three years. In that time however – he has recorded history. He covered the end of the shuttle program, the launch of probes to both worlds close as well as those impossibly far away. Also like his fellow photographers he has fought tooth-and-nail to tell the space flight story. 

“Photography is pretty much like anything else,” said Killian during a recent interview. “It’s all about timing – being at the right place – at the right time.” 

Lightning paints the Florida skies in this image. Photo Couresy of Mike Killian

Killian was present during one of these periods, during one of the evenings prior to the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour. He turned his camera to the sky and managed to catch lightning as it arced across the Florida sky. For the 27-year-old it was one among many of amazing opportunities that has presented itself as he pursues covering something that has inspired him his entire life – space flight. 

Killian, like so many of his colleagues, has begun working with remote cameras. These cameras have batteries that can last several days and are usually activated by either light or sound. He also takes picture on his own from wherever he is during launch. Killian uses 2 Canon Rebel XSi cameras due to the cameras affordability and versatility. 

Past reflections of the shuttle era are highlighted in this image of Discovery being rolled out to Launch Complex 39A. Photo Courtesy of Mike Killian

Over the last two years he has managed to cover some very historic events in and around NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Unlike most other photographers – he does have one photo in particular that stands out as his favorite. 

“My favorite shot thus far is of a lightning storm over KSC for the night launch of Discovery on STS-128. That storm scrubbed the launch attempt, but the images I captured that night were unreal,” said Killian. “This particular photo has so much going on – Discovery basking in xenon lights atop launch pad 39A fully fueled with her crew onboard, lightning racing through the clouds directly above KSC, & the shuttle training aircraft flying over the storm (upper left of photo) on weather recon trying to determine if there would be any chance the storm could let up in time to support a launch that night. It’s very unique, not your typical launch photo.”  

Killian realizes that to record history - you have to be there when it happens. Therefore, when Atlantis rolled to the launch pad and conducted the final launch of the shuttle era - he was there. Photos Courtesy of Mike Killian


For Killian photographing various elements of the space program allows the new father to combine his love of photography with the passion he feels for the U.S. Space Program. Killian currently works for the ARES Institute as well as Spacearium and has no plans to stop photographing the space program anytime soon. For him this is not about the money, it’s about the history of thunder and the wonder of light and like so many of his fellow photojournalists he feels privileged to be able to do what he does. 

“I have loved the space program since I was a child,” Killian said. “Most folks that come out here and do this I doubt very highly that they do it thinking they will get rich. They do it because what they are showing the world is so important, so awe-inspiring…and so beautiful.”

In these two images, the Delta II with its GRAIL spacecraft payload are caught as the United Launch Alliance rocket thunders off of the launch pad - and into history. Photos courtesy of Mike Killian
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One Comment

  1. Well done Mike. I like the same image as you do as the thunder rolling is awesome my friend. Keep up the good work and have a blessed week. Your facebook friend hear in the UK stuart sleigh.

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