Even if you’re tasked with capturing potential history — the future launch of the world’s most powerful rocket, in this case — it’s important to keep one simple mantra in mind.
Photography is simply the art of playing with light.
I have the privilege of working around a launch pad several days a year. Often a rocket and spacecraft are about to reach for the stars, and mine task is to do justice to their triumphant flight by recording it and preserving the memory. With such a challenge Where do you even start??
After photographing three different rockets during nine launches, today I hope to give you an insider’s perspective of the triumphant Falcon Heavy launch. You may not be quite ready to shoot a future SLS or Falcon Heavy launch for NatGeo after reading this, but hopefully it gives a clear idea of what goes into my launch footage.
Where Neil, Buzz and Michael left for the moon
For several reasons, 39A is my favorite trail to take pictures of. It’s all well and good that it offers the most variety in terms of installation locations (there are five to seven in total, depending on launch), but it’s a historic place to say the least.
Launch Complex 39A is where Neil Armstrong, “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins took off for the moon on Apollo 11. It is where the Shuttle program began, with STS-1 in 1981, and ended with STS-135 in 2011. hallowed ground for us space nerds and missile fighters.
In that regard, I think 39A is the biggest challenge. So much has happened here. Only look with the earlier NASA sets (for example below). There are countless, timeless photographs of 39A’s Apollo and Shuttle programs. It makes documenting the new era of American spaceflight a daunting task.
The launch day for me technically starts many days earlier. I sit down with a mental sketchbook to brainstorm what I would like to capture. The first question remains the same across all launches: what time of day is the launch scheduled for? Is it a day start? Night? Sunrise Sunset? The time of day the launch falls will affect everything.
For nighttime launches, the weather isn’t much of a factor with external cameras unless the forecast calls for major fog. Then you have to keep the lens temperature above the dew point. For this I use 24-hour hand warmers, cable ties and aluminum foil. Usually I set this system after set my focus and tape the zoom ring, focus ring and buttons to the lens (if any) so they don’t move.
When it’s daytime, I have to figure out which weather is most likely to predict: cloudy or sunny? If it’s predicted to be mostly sunny, I check TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris) to see how light will fall that day/time.
Traveling to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the scheduled T-0 launch time is 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 6, 2018. The weather seems good, so the “Crawlerway” location outside the path will presumably provide the best lighting (ie least shadows). But the other 5 o’clock positions could provide a dramatic/contrast sidelight.
Finally, if it’s a dawn/twilight, I’m left empty handed as I have yet to capture a launch at these times. It is often difficult enough to capture the rapidly changing light conditions of a sunrise or sunset right there with your camera. Given today’s increased launch frequencies, I look forward to the additional challenges that come with being three miles from my cameras at sunrise/sunset. If the work of others is any indication, the resulting images will be remarkable.