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The tech, sweat, and anxiety that goes into shooting a racket launch



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 ̵

1; a Space Shuttle mission in the summer of 2008 – everyone gave me the same advice: see it with your own eyes. "The camera will not do it justice," people told me. Ultimately, they were right. I tried to film the launch with my first-generation iPhone, but I quickly abandoned the screen after realizing how crappy the video quality was.

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

  • An MIOPS Smart + camera trigger
  • A 70-200mm lens

  • A Miops Smart + camera trigger
  • 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.


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    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.

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    Image: Pauline Acalin and Photo by Loren Grush / The Verge

    Back at the press site, I found Pauline and Tom and told them how nervous I was. "Just wait, you'll think about it all night," said Tom. I mentioned that returning to the camera the next day must be like opening a present on Christmas morning, not knowing what you will find inside. "That's exactly what it's like," said Pauline. "It's the best feeling."

    "But also, a lot of times, you can get a coal," she warned

    Two hours to launch

    Seven hours later we were ready for the show. The launch, originally set for 11:30 PM ET, was pushed to 2:30 AM ET, which meant we were in for a much longer night than we had planned. And I did not have a coffee

    Instead of getting my caffeine fix, I doused my body in bug spray and filed onto and a bus with Pauline, bound for a Florida route that would offer us a prime view of the launch. We stacked out a little spot for ourselves, and I started setting my shot, positioning the frame so that the launchpad was in the bottom left corner of my shot, knowing that the rocket would arc in the sky up and right

    Then, we just had to wait. As the minutes ticked away, I thought about my camera out there by the pad all alone. I worried about his safety, but my nerves were tinged with jealousy. It has a front-row seat to the action


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    Over a loudspeaker behind us, someone in SpaceX mission control counted down to liftoff. Five … four … three … two … one. I pushed down my trigger to start the long-exposure shot. In front of me, it seemed like a small sun started to rise. For a few moments, the light from Falcon Heavy's engines invaded the night air, momentarily distorting the gloomy morning into a false dawn. The deep growl from the engines reached us, rattling our ears. Cries of delight emerged from the crowd, and the rapid clicking of the cameras sounded out.

    The rocket arced just as expected, and after about three and a half minutes, its main engine shut off and its two outer boosters broke away. At that point, I let go of the trigger to end my shot and stared at the camera screen. A second later, I gasped. There it was! The streak, right there on my camera. It was a tad overexposed but I'd done it.


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    The two outer

    I did not have much time to celebrate – four minutes later, the boosters would reignite their engines. I adjusted my shot to put the landing pads in the frame and pushed the trigger, starting another long exposure. The two cores lit up overhead, like candlesticks floating above us. A few minutes later, they ignited their engines again, performing a synchronized routine that brought them down gently to their landing pads. Again, my camera delivered. Another long-shot shot with streaks of light. My delight was punctuated by six sonic booms – 19659061] 15 hours post-launch

    Running on about four hours of sleep, the launch was a distant dream at this point, but the anticipation of seeing my photos kept me energized. He and the bus surrounded by photographers who had done this dozens of times before, our anxiety peaked. I knew I would feel embarrassed if I did not get any close-ups. At least I had got my two streak shots, I thought. But I wanted the hat trick

    Back inside the perimeter of the launchpad, everyone drove off the bus while I cautiously departed. I trudged up to my camera. It was still there, at least, in the same position where I had left it. I flicked the MIOPS + trigger. It trilled, indicating it was still working. I downloaded the stakes that were anchoring the tripod to the ground and carried all my equipment onto the bus

    While everyone else had tablets and computers to upload their photos instantly online, I waited a couple of minutes before looking at the photos on my camera. I turned the camera on and my heart sank as soon as I saw pure black photos. I scrolled back and forth. Still black. Mentally, I prepared myself for not seeing anything.

    I got it, I thought.

    Then I saw it. A faint hint of blue smoke. I scrolled back and the bright flames from the engines entered my shot, as if the rocket was launching backward. I had caught it! The elation I felt during the launch surged through me all over again.


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    I've finally understood why people get so hooked on this lifestyle. It was really like getting the best present on Christmas morning, and I wanted to feel that feeling again and again. In my head, I immediately started thinking about the next rocket launch I could attend.

    Photography by Loren Grush / The Verge

    From now on, when I head to Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg for a launch, I plan to bring a camera and abandon it all over again.
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