My heart started pounding as our bus pulled closer to the launchpad. SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket was long gone, but I did not care. I was about to be reunited with the camera I had staked into the grass and abandoned next to the titanic rocket. If my efforts had worked, the camera would hold brilliantly detailed images of rocket flames trailing in the sky.
Normally, any angst I feel around a rocket launch reaches its peak in the moments before the vehicle takes to the skies – not half the day after the rockets have launched and landed. I've been fortunate enough to witness six rocket launches in person, and seeing these incredible feats of engineering never get old (even counting one launch shrouded in fog).
But I've always been focused on just watching these missions. When I saw my first launch ̵
For my seventh launch, I decided to try something a little different. When I heard that the Falcon Heavy was going to launch in the middle of the night for the first time, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to finally see the launch through the lens.
Night launches are truly marvelous sights. For a brief few moments, the sky is illuminated with light by a tiny rocket in the distance, as if someone had just flipped Earth's light switch to "daytime." But the best part about a night launch, in my opinion, is the opportunity for photographers to capture what's known as "streak" or "arc." Since the engines of a rocket burn so bright against the darkness, you can leave your exposure open on your camera for minutes at a time and collect the light of the whole ascent. The result is a picture of a beautiful stream of light arcing in the distance. I also coveted a close-up shot of engine fire set against the darkness, taken near the landing pad at the moment of liftoff. For years, I'd admired the work of space photographers, but both shots were something I've always wanted to capture myself.
Now, I'd have my chance. But as we approached that pad, I still did not know if that chance had paid off.
The draw of the Heavy
The Falcon Heavy launch was extra enticing to me since the vehicle boasts 27 engines, meaning I could get a whole lot of fire in my shot. And there was the added bonus of getting something you can not get with other launches: the landing of the two outer boosters. During the flight, Falcon Heavy's outer cores break away and touch down on SpaceX's landing pads at Cape Canaveral. If you have time, you can also get a long-shot shot of the pair returning to Earth.
While I knew how to get these shots in theory, I had not attempted to actually photograph a launch since that disastrous iPhone video I took in 2008. Fortunately for me, there is an army of dedicated photographers who attend most launches in the United States and have perfected the art of rocket photography.
To my delight, one of these photographers, Pauline Acalin, agreed to be my guide. Pauline is a photojournalist for the site Teslarati which covers all things Elon Musk, so she's had a lot of experience photographing SpaceX launches.
I told her I wanted two different shots: I wanted the streak, of course, and I wanted to try my hand at setting up a camera remotely near the rocket. SpaceX allows members of the press – and some other photographers – to set up cameras within the perimeter of the launchpad to get detailed shots of takeoff. It's a slightly terrifying practice. You set up your camera near a bunch of rocket engines, program it to take pictures at the right time, and then leave it there for more than 24 hours – praying that it will do what it's told and catch the racket in flight. 19659013] Fortunately for me, Pauline told me that the equipment I needed was pretty straightforward. For the arc, I brought:
- A Canon 5D Mark III camera
- A tripod
- A 16-35mm lens
- A cable release trigger
remains incredibly still while the shutter remains open. That way, all of the stationary objects remain sharp, and any light that moves blurs together. A cable release trigger allows you to open the camera's shutter without actually touching the camera itself. Once I set up my camera on the tripod, I would just press a button on the cable trigger to take the picture and keep the shutter open until the Falcon Heavy's main engine shut down after takeoff
For my remote camera, I needed
A 70-200mm lens
That last piece was crucial, Pauline told me, as this trigger is what most photographers use for their remote shots. When mounted on the camera, the trigger can be programmed to wake the camera up when there are loud sounds nearby. I was going to have to leave my camera for a whole day, so I would have to keep the camera asleep most of the time to conserve battery power and then wake the camera up to take pictures at the right time. Since my hardware would be less than 1,500 feet away from launching a racket, getting loud noises to trigger the camera would not be a problem.
One day to launch
The day before the mission, I met Pauline and her photo partner Tom Cross at Fish Lips, a seafood restaurant in Cocoa Beach, located near NASA's Kennedy Space Center where the rocket would be launching. She brought me a bag of goodies to keep my camera alive and upright, including metal stakes, zip ties, plastic bags, blue painters tape, rubber bands, and hand warmers. Not only was I going to abandon one of my cameras for a day, but I was going to abandon it in Central Florida in June. (19659027) She brought me a bag of goodies to keep my camera alive and upright
The plastic bag that Pauline bought was going to be my camera's shield, protecting it from rain or any other weird precipitation. That's what we do, we cut the hole in the bag and taped the opening around my camera's lens as she told me how to set my shot the next day. Once at the pad, I'd have to focus on the area I would like to get my pictures, focus the camera on that spot, and then tape accidentally go out of focus throughout the night.
Since the launch has taken place at night, Pauline told me I would also like to secure a hand warmer around the lens with a rubber band. The warmer would help prevent condensation from forming on the lens.
Then came my first problem. Pauline had recommended that I bring a lens shade to keep water from dripping onto the lens, and I'd completely forgotten to bring one.
Pauline, a truly miraculous worker, said there was an easy fix: the iconic red Solo cup, capable of holding a beer or holding liquid off a camera lens. Turns out, this MacGyver and lens shade, all you need is to slice up and Solo cup until it's mouth fits around the lens, and tape it down. Voilà! You have a makeshift shade.
The last step of the prep involved looping and a few zip ties around the bottom legs of the tripod, which would connect to the stakes I would hammer into the dirt the next day. I did not want to take the chance of my precious hardware getting knocked around in the rumble of the launch or the fury of a sudden Florida storm.
After about an hour, we set up the camera on our table at Fish Lips. Now, I just had to make it all over again in the sun and humidity, and I'd be all set. As she and Tom left, Pauline gave me one last piece of advice: charge everything .
14 hours to launch
The day of the launch, I searched for Pauline in the crowd of enthusiastic photographers and I was so eagerly showing her the Solo Cup I had attached to the lens the night before. "Not bad!" She told me. After an interminable wait in the blazing sun during a security check, we finally boarded a fleet of NASA buses and headed out towards the launchpad.
Everyone on our bus started to buzz a bit more loudly as we approached the fence surrounding the pad. The Falcon Heavy towered over us, glistening in the Florida sun. Its outer boosters were still covered in soot – and the souvenir from the first time they had gone to space and back. We parked inside the perimeter and rushed off the bus; we had about 15 minutes to set up our equipment
It was time to execute my training. I found a small patch of unclaimed earth and started staking down my tripod with a hammer I bought from Walgreens the night before. After the tripod was secure, I mounted the camera and set my shot. I decided to point the lens at the top of the tower, zooming in so I could get high-resolution shots of the engines as they ascended. I taped my focus and turned on my camera trigger, flicking it a few times to make sure it would take pictures when it heard a loud sound. Every time I did, my camera tilled, indicating it was snapping photos in quick succession. I also set my camera to go to sleep after one minute of taking photos, so the battery would not exhaust itself
I stepped back and hesitated . "I think I'm done?" I said to no one. I found Pauline, who was setting up a camera next to me and asked her to look over my handy work. She gave me the thumbs-up and returned to setting up her own cameras. I tied the plastic bag around the body and stood there for a good minute. All of a sudden, I felt like someone abandoning a puppy in the middle of a field. I was just supposed to leave this here? I checked the temperature on my phone: 95 degrees. Ouch.