How do you get to the end of the world?
How do you get to rocket launch paradise? Planes, trains and cars, of course!
Brady and I started our trip to New Zealand on December 7th at 4:00 PM from Chicago, landing in Los Angeles hours later. Pretty easy, right? Unfortunately we were just getting started. A five-hour layover at LAX followed, followed by a 14-hour flight to Auckland, New Zealand.
I had previously performed several long-haul flights (once to Moscow, Russia via Frankfurt, Germany, and to Baikonur, Kazakhstan for Expedition 54, flew to the space station) and at the beginning of 14 hours seemed quite daunting. But after checking my flight booking and noticing that we were going to be aboard a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, the ride made the effort well worth it. We arrived two days later on December 9th, which was disorienting. (Between the 14-hour flight and the 19-hour time difference between Los Angeles and Auckland, it was nice to know you, December 8, 2018.)
So, for these leading score, let's add the time spent so far …
- 10 hours awake in the United States
- Four-hour afternoon flight from Chicago to Los Angeles
- five-hour release
- 14-hour flight to Auckland
For a total of 33 hours travel to reach our destination. Almost. After landing late in the morning in Auckland we had to find the next rental car and start the seven-hour trip to Gisborne. It is a city of approximately ~ 37,000 people, representing the closest populated area to the launching point of the Mahia Peninsula. Flying 14 hours with a lens backpack, a portable roller bag with camera bodies, and two checked tripod bags (not to mention clothes for two weeks), there was a lot to monitor. Fortunately, the airline received our bags on time – otherwise we would have faced some serious problems, which are 7+ hours from the airport while staying close to the launch site.
But all these logistical challenges quickly faded as we began to drive across the upper North Island of New Zealand. It was full of winding roads, scenic coasts and spectacular views.
Finally, after a grueling 40 hours of awakening, Brady and I arrived at our Airbnb several hours before sunset. We adjusted our things and sat in the back yard for a little while to enjoy the sunset, but I was just zoned. I made him go down, I wasn't. I lay down and woke up a little over 12 hours later (in exactly the same position as I lay down). Being awake for 40+ hours will do the trick, but no one said rocket photography was easy.
Planning for a Show Time
After a good night's sleep, it was time to get to work for the reason we're really here – a New Zealand rocket! From our Airbnb in Gisborne, we had only a short journey: another 90-minute drive to Mahia, followed by another hour's drive to the southern end of the Mahia Peninsula, where the launch complex is located. Mahia itself is a very small town of ~ 700 people, located on the eastern side of the North Island of New Zealand. The LC-1, the world's first private orbital launch complex / scope, is located south of the city on the Mahia Peninsula.
Often, when it comes to photographing startups, media members are brought to the launch pad and allowed to place cameras in a relatively small, predetermined area. If you remember my experience with the Falcon Heavy last year, for example, we actually had plenty of places available. The rocket photographer is usually not so happy.
But if the SpaceX experience was better than most, Rocket Lab still presents photographers with something cooler. With this launch of Launch Complex-1 and Electron, Brady and I had almost complete creative freedom in placing our cameras. We had the opportunity to put things on structures, at the base of the rocket on the earth, pressed against the rails – basically besides the physical attachment of a camera to the rocket, we could put cameras everywhere .  The creative approaches you can take with such an opportunity are endless, which is a challenge. Where to start if everything is possible and the canvas is white? Still, it was an incredible opportunity. And I brought with me six sound-activated remote cameras, ready to be placed around the launch pad as soon as I had an idea for each.
Pretty soon with respect to the pictures I wanted, I knew I wanted to mark three main squares. The other three would be a bonus. My shot shot was …
- Engine shooting (those super dark / unexposed shots that show the detail in the exhaust rocket)
- A really close vertical shot. While the Electron vehicle is quite powerful, it is also one of the shortest missiles. A nearby vertically oriented camera, placed tightly on the rocket, will look much taller than it actually is.
- Good horizontal photo on both sides of a vertically oriented camera (to change the landscape so it doesn't look like a different culture of the same photo) or one on the same side, but even closer. Horizontal photos work very well for use on the web, among many other things, and I know that horizontal photos have a much better chance of being used as a function than vertical photos or a collage of vertical photos, so I definitely wanted to make that a priority (and often make horizontal shot images a priority)
In addition to conceptualizing images, this launch of the Electron rocket has posed many challenges beyond the regular ones encountered in American launch sites. And even more than the travel required and the freedom afforded to our remote camera locations, the biggest challenge we faced was finding a decent viewing spot. In places such as Florida (Cape Canaveral AFB / Kennedy Space Center) or California (Vandenberg AFB), where launches are fairly regular, there are public places set aside with great consideration for launch. In some cases, there are even tutorials, blog posts, or videos, including sample photos, descriptions of each, and what are the benefits / harms of watching from here.
But when it came to launching viewing in New Zealand, the Mahia Peninsula was made up almost entirely of private farmland, and unfortunately we were unable to watch the launch closely – only our cameras had this privilege. And since this was only the fourth missile launch at the Rocket Lab, none of those information-rich blogs or guides written by photographers could be found. Florida has more than 40 years of exploration of the Space Coast, so we had to do the research ourselves. Or, right?
Log in, toilets with Wi-Fi on.
Between the cities of Mahia and Nuhaka, the Oputama Road runs across the ocean and has scenic views / miles every few miles. And on one of our trips from Gisborne to Mahia, we noticed that there was a special looking dish on top. "What would that be about? Surf the Web while you are in John? "
When we went out on the side of the road and raised the Wi-Fi settings on our phones, surely it was a password-free Wi-Fi network. Testing the download speed, it was pretty decent: 8mb / s down and 6 up! Amazing for a zero cell acceptance zone. Is it best for banking or other network operations that require a secure connection? No, because where those little dots on the plate and where this internet comes from may never be known. But we know that a small dish would allow us to watch and broadcast a live launch from a location.
Leaf image by Trevor Mahlmann