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NASA Behind the Scenes: Launch Pad Photography

Launch shot captured by Julian Leek.
Launch shot of the Atlas V and the MAVEN spacecraft captured by Julian Leek.

In the world of modern spaceflight, we are spoiled with close up imagery of rockets launching. Thanks to cameras mounted on the side of rockets we often get to ride along with the rocket watching stage separations in real time. After witnessing my first rocket launch in March of this year, SpaceX CRS-2 mission, I began wondering what type of photography equipment was needed to capture a rocket launch. With all of the long distance transmitting we see with space flight, it’s easy to imagine photographers in a room monitoring and maneuvering their cameras as the launch takes place. That doesn’t even come close to reality.

Before each NASA Kennedy Space Center launch, photographers from around the world gather on the launch pad to set up remotely triggered cameras. Getting the launch pad money shot is risky and involves careful positioning to keep cameras stable and protected from debris shooting from the launch pad flame duct. Before these cameras face earth shaking vibrations from the rocket engines igniting, they are often subjected to harsh coastal winds, rains, and changing temperatures—all of which are a camera’s worst enemy.

The decorative facade of a mailbox serves as this cameras protective housing.
Camera and microphone are covered in plastic. The decorative facade of a mailbox serves as this cameras protective housing. Photo by Tyra Robertson

For NASA’s recent MAVEN launch, photographers were required to put cameras on the pad on Saturday, 48 hours before the launch. Launch pad got secured and cleared of all unnecessary personnel on Sunday so the spacecraft and rocket could be monitored, and the operations crew could have downtime on Sunday before the intensity of launch activity kicked in on Monday.

At 1:30 p.m., about thirty photographers, and their gear, piled into a white bus labeled “NASA GUESTS” in the Kennedy Space Center press complex parking lot. A caravan of two vans, a truck, and the bus parade along narrow roads and arrived at the United Launch Alliance (ULA) pad about 2:00 p.m. for a two-hour window designated for photography set up. The driver of each vehicle gave a head count to launch pad security as we passed through the gate. Once our caravan parked, a ULA representative pointed out the areas available for camera set up. The railroad track that comes into the launch pad would serve as front row viewing for cameras. Once photographers knew the boundaries to work within, they quickly grabbed their gear and started setting up.

Sound meeter used as a remote trigger. The camera starts shooting when the rocket engines ignite.
Sound meter used as a remote trigger. The camera starts shooting when the rocket engines ignite. Photo by Tyra Robertson

 

Most setups included a DSLR camera, microphone, tripod, and protective camera housing. A few setups housed 2 DSLR cameras, one for horizontal shots and one for vertical shots. The microphone serves as the remote trigger for the shutter. The camera’s shutter is set to continuous so when the microphone picks up sound, the camera captures one shot after another until the sound from the rocket is no longer audible. The tripods I saw were all standard except for the ropes, bungee cords, and camping stakes used to keep them from falling over and to reduce shake during the rocket launch. The camera housings were, by far, the most interesting part of the setups. The housings ranged from turn key solutions one might use for wildlife photography to a decorative mailbox roof to a plastic storage box with a hole for the lens to a simple plastic retail bag.

Assuming the camera made it through the 2 days of wind, changing temperatures, and rain the camera still may not have any usable shots. The plume of smoke from the flame duct could have blown in front of the camera, the tripod got knocked down, or was shaking too much to capture a clear shot. Two of the photographers I rode to the launch pad with said they capture usable shots about 60% of the time. You might be tempted to think that the most professional housings and setups get the most usable shots but that’s not true. The same photographers shared a story about how an IMAX team came out to set up at a previous launch with some of the most high end equipment available and walked away with no images whatsoever, the remote trigger did not work.

Two plastic storage boxes screwed together and mounted on a board serve as this camera's DIY setup.
Two plastic storage boxes screwed together and mounted on a board serve as this camera’s DIY setup. Photo by Tyra Robertson

For the MAVEN launch, I spent most of the setup time observing photographer Julian Leek. Leek is no stranger to the launch pad and had the most DIY setup of the entire gaggle of photographers. His setup included:

  • DSLR with a 28mm lens
  • lavaliere microphone taped to a pencil
  • homemade sound trigger (not very TSA-friendly device)
  • tripod with a rope attaching to the railroad tracks
  • a red Solo cup, with a drainage hole for rain, for the lends hood
  • white retail bag for weather proofing

He certainly got some looks as he was setting up. The most entertaining part of Leek’s setup was when he was testing the microphone. While holding the microphone and leaning in towards the camera so he can hear the shutter click, he belts out a few barks, “Wwwooooofffff…wwooooofffff…wwooooofffff!”. The shutter successfully fires. The images below shows Leek as he puts together his camera setup.

 

Julian Leek holding components for his remotely triggered launch pad camera.
Julian Leek holding components for his remotely triggered launch pad camera. Photo by Tyra Robertson
"Woooofff...wwoooofff...woooofff" Julian barking the camera's attached microphone to test the camera's shutter during the launch.
“Woooofff…wwoooofff…woooofff” Julian barking the camera’s attached microphone to test the camera’s shutter during the launch. Photo by Tyra Robertson
A lavaliere microphone taped to a pencil is what triggers the cameras continuous shutter during the launch.
A lavaliere microphone taped to a pencil is what triggers the cameras continuous shutter during the launch. Photo by Tyra Robertson
Using industrial tape, Julian tapes the focus ring to the camera lens. Vibrations from  the launch can easily shake the camera out of focus.
Using industrial tape, Julian tapes the focus ring to the camera lens. Vibrations from the launch can easily shake the camera out of focus. Photo by Tyra Robertson
Julian uses thin rope to tie the tripod to a railroad track that run into the launch pad.
Julian uses thin rope to tie the tripod to a railroad track that run into the launch pad. Photo by Tyra Robertson
A common retail bag with a whole cut in it provides rain and wind protection.
A common retail bag with a whole cut in it provides rain and wind protection. Photo by Tyra Robertson
A lens hood crafted from a Solo cup is the lens hood. A special cut is added at the base of the hood to allow for water drainage.
Leek crafts a lens hood from a Solo cup. A special cut is added at the base of the hood to allow for water drainage. Photo by Tyra Robertson
The rain protector is taped at the bottom to make the setup aerodynamic.
The rain protector is taped at the bottom to make the setup aerodynamic. Photo by Tyra Robertson
The camera setup sat in that spot for 48 hours waiting for t-minus zero.
The camera setup sat in that spot for 48 hours waiting for t-minus zero. Photo by Tyra Robertson
Altas V rocket carrying the MAVEN spacecraft takes off from United Launch Alliance launch pad. Photo by Julian Leek.
Altas V rocket carrying the MAVEN spacecraft takes off from United Launch Alliance launch pad. Photo by Julian Leek.