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<pre><pre>The technology, the sweat and the fear associated with photographing a Falcon Heavy rocket launch

My heart started pounding as our bus moved closer to the launch pad. SpaceX & # 39; s Falcon Heavy rocket was long gone, but I didn't care. I was about to be reunited with the camera that I had put in the grass and abandoned next one to the titanic rocket. If my efforts had worked, the camera would brilliantly hold detailed images of rocket flames in the back. If I had screwed it up, the images would just be black.

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Normally, every fear I experience about a rocket launch reaches its peak at the moments before the vehicle goes up – not half a day after the rockets are launched and landed. I was lucky enough to be able to experience six rocket launches in person, and seeing this incredible performance of the technique never gets old (even a launch covered in fog counting).

But I've always been focused on exactly watching these missions. When I saw my first launch – a Space Shuttle mission in the summer of 2008 – everyone gave me the same advice: look at it with your own eyes. "The camera won't do it justice," people told me. In the end they were right. While standing in the stands of a visitor viewing spot in Cape Canaveral, Florida, I tried to film the launch with my first generation iPhone, but I quickly left the screen after I realized how worthless the video quality was. Instead, I watched the ascending vehicle with awe.

For my seventh launch, I decided to try something different. When I heard that the Falcon Heavy would start for the first time in the middle of the night, I knew that this was the perfect opportunity to finally see the launch through the lens.

Nightly launches are really beautiful sights. For a few moments, the sky is illuminated with light from a small rocket in the distance, as if someone was just moving the Earth's light switch to & # 39; during the day & # 39; has turned around. But the best part of a night launch is, in my opinion, the opportunity for photographers to capture what is known as the "streak" or the "arc". Because the engines of a rocket burn so brightly against the darkness, you can leave your exposure open on your camera for minutes and minutes and the light of the entire climb. The result is a photo of a beautiful beam of light that progresses in the distance. I also wanted a close-up shot of the engine fire against the darkness, close to the landing site at the time of launch. For years I had admired the work of space photographers, but both shots were something I always wanted to capture.

I now had my chance. But when we approached that path, I still did not know whether that opportunity had paid off.

The draw of the Heavy

The Falcon Heavy launch was extra appealing to me, since the vehicle has 27 engines, which means that I could make a lot of fire in my attempt. And there was the added bonus of getting something that you can't get with other launches: the landing of the two outer boosters of the rocket. During the flight, the outer cores of the Falcon Heavy break away and hit the landing blocks of SpaceX at Cape Canaveral. If you do it right, you can also get a long-exposure shot of the couple returning to Earth.

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Although I knew in theory how to take these photos, I hadn't tried to shoot a launch since that disastrous iPhone video I made in 2008. Fortunately, there is an army of dedicated professional 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 Acalinagreed to be my guide. Pauline is a photojournalist for the site Teslarati, who handles all things Elon Musk, so she has a lot of experience shooting SpaceX launches.

I told her that I wanted two different shots: I wanted the streak of course, and I wanted to try my hand at setting up a remote camera near the rocket. SpaceX offers members of the press – and some other photographers – the opportunity to set up cameras within the perimeter of the starting surface to take detailed recordings of the take-off. It is a bit frightening practice. You place your camera near a set of rocket engines, program it to take photos at exactly the right time and leave it there for more than 24 hours – praying that it will do what it is told and the rocket during catch the flight.

Fortunately for me, Pauline told me that the equipment I needed was fairly simple. Before the bow I brought:

  • A Canon 5D Mark III camera
  • A tripod
  • A 16-35 mm lens
  • A trigger for disconnecting the cable

The key to photography with long exposure time is to ensure that your camera stays incredibly still while the shutter stays open. In this way all stationary objects stay sharp and light that moves blurs together. With a cable release you can open the camera shutter without touching the camera itself. Once I have put my camera on the tripod, I simply press a button on the cable switch to take the photo and hold the shutter open until the main engines of the Falcon Heavy are turned off after takeoff.

I usually needed the same equipment for my external camera, except for a much nicer lens and a special accessory:

  • A Canon 6D Mark III camera
  • A tripod
  • A lens of 70-200 mm
  • A MIOPS Smart + camera trigger

That last piece was crucial, Pauline told me, because this trigger is what most photographers use for their remote shots. When the trigger is mounted on the camera, it can be programmed to activate the camera when loud noises are around. I would have to leave my camera for a whole day, so in most cases I would have to put the camera to sleep to save the battery and then wake up the camera to take photos at the right time. Because my hardware would be less than 1500 meters away from a rocket, it would not be a problem to make loud noises to activate the camera.

A day to launch

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The day before the mission, I met Pauline and her photo partner Tom Cross at Fish Lips, a seafood restaurant in Cocoa Beach, near NASA & # 39; s Kennedy Space Center where the rocket was to launch. She brought me a bag of things to keep my camera alive and upright, including metal sticks, zippers, plastic bags, blue painters' strap, rubber bands and hand warmers. Not only did I abandon one of my cameras for a day, but I wanted to leave it in Central Florida in June. That meant it had to withstand extreme heat and humidity – two things that cameras don't like so much.

The plastic bag that Pauline bought would become the shield of my camera to protect it from rain or other strange precipitation. In preparation, we cut a hole in the bag and tongued the opening around the lens of my camera while she told me how to take my photo the next day. Once on the path, I should focus on the area where I would like to have my photos, point the camera at that spot, and then band my lens down so that it would not shift and accidentally lose focus & night.


Since the launch took place overnight, Pauline told me that I also wanted to attach a hand warmer to the lens with a rubber band. The heating would help prevent condensation from forming on the lens.

Then my first problem came. Pauline had advised me to take a lens shade to prevent water from dripping on the lens and I had forgotten to take one.

Pauline, really a miracle worker, said there was a simple solution: the iconic red Solo cup, able to hold beer or keep liquid from a camera lens. Turns out, for MacGyver, a lens shadow, all you need is to cut a Solo cup into pieces until its mouth fits around the lens and clamp it. Voila! You have an improvised shadow.

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The final step of prep was to loop a number of zip-ties around the lower legs of the tripod, which would connect to stakes that I would hammer into the dirt the next day. I didn't want to seize the chance that my precious hardware was lying around in the rumbling of the launch or the rage of a sudden Florida storm.

After about an hour we put the camera on Fish Lips on our table. Now I had to do it all over again, in the sun and in the sky, and I was all set. When she and Tom left, Pauline gave me one final advice: indictment everything.

14 hours to start

The day of the launch, I searched for Pauline in the crowd of enthusiastic photographers and eagerly showed her the Solo cup that I had put on the lens the night before. "Not bad!", She told me. After an endless wait in the blazing sun during a security check, we finally boarded a fleet of NASA buses and headed for the launch pad.

Everyone on our bus started buzzing a little louder as we approached the fence around the path. The Falcon Heavy towered above us, sparkling in the Florida sun. The outer boosters were still covered with soot – a souvenir from the first time they had gone to space and back. We parked in the perimeter and ran out of the bus; we only had about 15 minutes to set up our equipment.

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It was time to do my training. I found a small piece of unclaimed earth and started turning my tripod on with a hammer I had bought from Walgreens the night before. After the tripod was safe, I mounted the camera and took my photo. I decided to aim the lens at the top of the tower, to zoom in, so that I could take high resolution photos of the engines as they went up. I captured my focus and turned on my camera trigger, wiping a few times to make sure that pictures would be taken if it heard a loud noise. Every time I did that, my camera shook, indicating that the photos were cut in quick succession. I also set up my camera to go to sleep after taking a minute of photos, so the battery wouldn't deplete itself.

I stepped back and hesitated. "I think I'm done?" I told no one. I found Pauline, who was setting up a camera next to me and asked her to oversee my handy work. She gave me the thumbs up and returned to setting up her own cameras. I tied the plastic bag around the camera body and stood there for a minute. Suddenly I felt like someone was abandoning a puppy in the middle of a field. I should have just left it here? I checked the temperature on my phone: 95 degrees. Ouch.

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Prepare my shot
Image: Pauline Acalin and photo by Loren Grush / The Verge

Back on the site of the press I found Pauline and Tom and told them how nervous I was. "Wait, you're going to think about it all night," said Tom. I said that if you return to the camera the next day, you should feel like you are opening a gift on Christmas morning, not knowing what you will find inside. "That's exactly what it is," said Pauline. "It's the best feeling."

"But also, very often, you can get coal," she warned.

Two hours to start

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

Instead of getting my caffeine fixation, I immersed my body in bug spray and stuck in a bus with Pauline on the way to a Florida highway that would give us the first look at the launch. We have set a small spot for ourselves and I started taking my photo, placing the frame so that the launch pad was in the lower left corner of my stroke, knowing that the rocket would jump up and right into the sky.

Then we just had to wait. As the minutes went by, I thought of my camera out there by the path all by myself. I was worried about his safety, but my nerves were tinged with jealousy. It really had a place in the front row for the promotion.


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Above a loudspeaker behind us, someone in SpaceX mission control counted down to take off. Five four three two one. I pushed my trigger down to start the long-exposure shot. To me it seemed like a small sun was rising. For a few moments the light from the engines of the Falcon Heavy entered the night sky, transforming the gloomy morning into a false dawn. The deep growl of the engines reached us and rattled in our ears. Cries of joy came from the crowd and the quick click of the cameras sounded.

The rocket bowed exactly as expected, and after about three and a half minutes, its main engine shut down and its two outer boosters broke away. At that moment I released the trigger to end my shot and stared at the camera screen. A second later I gasped. There it was! The line, right there on my camera. It was a bit overexposed, but I had done it.


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The two outer cores of the Falcon Heavy landing.

I didn't have much time to celebrate – four minutes later the boosters would re-light their engines. I adjusted my stroke to place the landing platforms in the frame and pressed the trigger to start a new long exposure time. The two cores lit up above us, like candlesticks hovering above us. A few minutes later, they re-lit their engines and performed a synchronized routine that gently brought them to their landing platforms. Again, my camera delivered. Another shot with a long exposure time with streaks of light. My delight was interrupted by six sonic trees – a thank you from the returning boosters.

15 hours after the launch

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Running at about four hours of sleep, the launch was a distant dream at this point, but the expectation of seeing my photos kept me energetic. In a bus surrounded by photographers who had done this dozens of times before, my fears peaked. I knew I would be ashamed if I hadn't made close-ups. At least I had gotten my two streak shots, I thought. But I wanted the hat trick.

Back at the edge of the launch platform, everyone shot the bus, while I left carefully. I trudged toward my camera. It was still there, at least, in the same position where I left it. I have pressed the MIOPS + trigger. It vibrated, indicating that it was still working. I pulled out the sticks that anchored the tripod to the ground and carried all my gear on the bus.

While everyone else had tablets and computers to upload their photos directly online, I waited a few minutes before looking at the photos on my camera. I turned on the camera and my heart sank as soon as I saw pure black photos. I scrolled back and back. Still black. I prepared myself mentally for seeing nothing.

I got coal, I thought.

Then I saw it. A vague hint of blue smoke. I scrolled further back and the flames of the engines approached my target, as if the rocket were launching backwards. I caught it! The elation that I felt during the launch rose through me all over again.


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I finally understood why people become so addicted to this lifestyle. It was really like getting the best gift on Christmas morning, and I wanted to feel that feeling time and again. In my head I immediately started thinking about the next rocket launch that I could attend. From now on, when I am looking for Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg for a launch, I intend to bring a camera and leave it all over again.

Photography by Loren Grush / The Verge