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Home / Science / The technology, the sweat and the fear that comes with launching a rocket

The technology, the sweat and the fear that comes with launching a rocket

My heart began to throb as our bus came closer to the launch pad. SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket had long been gone, but I did not care. I wanted to be reunited with the camera that I had put in the grass and abandoned next to the Titanic rocket. If my efforts had worked out, the camera would contain brilliantly detailed images of rocket flames leaping into the sky. If I screwed up, the pictures would only be black.

Normally every fear I feel at a rocket launch reaches its climax in the moments before the vehicle soars into the sky – not half a day after the missile launches and landed. I was fortunate enough to witness six missile launches in person, and see that these incredible technical masterpieces never become obsolete (even counting only a foggy launch).

But I've always been focused on 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 does not do it justice," people told me. In the end, they were right. While standing in the stands of a visitor's venue in Cape Canaveral, Florida, I tried filming the launch with my first-generation iPhone, but I gave up the screen quickly after seeing how bad the video quality was. Instead, I just looked awestruck at the ascending vehicle.

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

Night starts are really wonderful sights. For a brief moment, the sky is illuminated by a tiny rocket in the distance, as if someone had just set the light switch of the earth on "day". But the best thing about a nightly start is in my opinion the opportunity for photographers to record the so-called "stripes" or "arcs". As the engines of a rocket burn so brightly in the dark, you can leave your exposure on the camera for minutes at a time, capturing the light of the rocket as you go up. The result is a picture of a beautiful ray of light bending into the distance. I also wanted a close-up of the engine fire in the dark, which was shot near the landing site at the moment of take-off. I had admired the work of space photographers for years, but I always wanted to capture both shots myself.

Now I have my chance. But as we approached this block, I still did not know if that chance had paid off.

The Draw of the Heavy

The launch of the Falcon Heavy was particularly tempting for me because the vehicle has 27 engines, which means I could get a 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 rocket's two outer boosters. During the flight, the outer cores of the Falcon Heavy will crash and land on the SpaceX airfields in Cape Canaveral. If you choose the right time, you can also get a long exposure of the Earth returning couple.

Although I theoretically knew how to do these shots, since this catastrophic iPhone, I had not tried to actually photograph a startup video that I shot in 2008. Fortunately, there is an army of dedicated professional photographers who have participated in most of the US launches and 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 website Teslarati which deals with everything Elon Musk has to offer. So she has a lot of experience with photographing SpaceX launches.

I told her I wanted to do two different shots: of course I wanted the strips and I wanted to try to set up a camera remotely near the rocket. With SpaceX, press representatives – and some other photographers – can set up cameras around the launch pad to get detailed shots of the launch. It's a bit scary practice. You set up your camera near a series of rocket engines, program them to take pictures at exactly the right time, and then leave them there for more than 24 hours – praying that they do what they promise, and the rocket at Flight begins. Luckily, Pauline told me that the equipment I needed was pretty simple. For the arc I brought with me:

  • A Canon 5D Mark III camera
  • A tripod
  • A 16-35mm lens
  • A cable release

The key to long exposure is that your camera It works incredibly quiet while the shutter remains open. In this way, all stationary objects remain sharp and the light moves together. Using a cable release, you can open the shutter button of the camera without touching the camera itself. Once I had set up my camera on the tripod, I simply pressed a button on the cable release to take the picture and keep the shutter open until the main engines of the Falcon Heavy were turned off after starting.

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

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

The last piece was crucial, Pauline told me, as most photographers use this trigger for their telephoto shots. When mounted on the camera, the shutter-release button can be programmed to wake up the camera when noisy sounds are heard nearby. I had to rest my camera for a whole day, so I had to keep the camera most of the time in sleep to save the battery, and then wake up the camera to take pictures at the right time. Since my hardware would be less than 400 meters from a rocket, it would not be a problem to make loud noises to trigger the camera.

One Day Before Takeoff

The day before the mission, I met Pauline and her photo colleague Tom Cross at Fish Lips, a seafood restaurant in Cocoa Beach, near NASA's Kennedy Space Center, where the rocket would launch , She brought me a bag of goodies to keep my camera alive, including metal posts, cable ties, plastic bags, blue painters' tape, rubber bands, and hand warmers. Not only did I want to give up one of my cameras for a day, but also give it up in central Florida in June. That meant it had to withstand extreme heat and humidity – two things that cameras do not like.

It was supposed to be the plastic bag that Pauline bought The shield of my camera protects her from rain and other crazy rainfall. As a precaution, we cut a hole in the bag and stuck the opening around the lens of my camera when she told me how to set up my shot the next day. Once I get to the pad, I have to concentrate on the area where I want to take my pictures, focus the camera on that point and then tape my lens with tape so it does not shift and out Blurred all night.


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

Then came my first problem. Pauline had recommended that you bring a lens protector so that no water drips on the lens, and I had completely forgotten to bring one.

Pauline, a true miracle worker, said there was a simple solution: the famous red solo mug that was able to hold beer or to keep liquid away from a camera lens. It turns out that MacGyver has a lens color. All you need to do is slice a solo cup until the mouth fits around the lens and tape it off. Voilà! You have a makeshift shadow.

The last step in the preparation was to wrap a couple of cable ties around the tripod's lower legs, which were connected to stakes that I pounded into the dirt the next day. I did not want to run the risk of my valuable hardware whirling around in the tumult of the start or rage of a sudden storm in Florida.

After about an hour, we set up the camera on our table in the Fish Lips. Now I just had to do it once more in the sun and in humidity, and I would be done. When she and Tom left, Pauline gave me a last piece of advice: Download .

14 hours to start

On the day of the launch, I sought out Pauline in the crowd of avid photographers and eagerly showed her the solo cup I had glued to 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 in our bus began to hum a bit louder as we approached the fence surrounding the block. The Falcon Heavy towered over us and shimmered in the Florida sun. The outer boosters were still covered with soot – a souvenir when they first went into space and back. We parked in the area and stormed out of the bus. We only had about 15 minutes to set up our equipment.

It was time to do my training. I found a small piece of unclaimed ground and began to stake out my tripod with a hammer I had bought from Walgreens the night before. After the tripod was secured, I mounted the camera and set up my shot. I decided to aim the lens at the top of the tower and zoomed in to take high-resolution images of the engines as they ascended. I took my focus, turned on the shutter of the camera and turned it a few times to make sure pictures were taken when there was a loud noise. Every time I did that, my camera drummed, indicating photos were taken in quick succession. I also set my camera to hibernate after a minute of taking pictures so the battery does not run out.

I stepped back and hesitated. "I think I'm done?" I said to no one. I found Pauline, who set up a camera next to me and asked her to look at my handy work. She gave me a thumbs up and put her own cameras back on. I tied the plastic bag around the camera body and stopped for a good minute. Suddenly I felt like someone leaving a puppy in the middle of a field. I should just leave this here? I checked the temperature on my phone: 95 degrees. Ouch.

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Setting up my recording
Picture: Pauline Acalin and photo by Loren Grush / The Verge

Back at the press office I found Pauline and Tom and explained how nervous I was. "Just wait, you'll think about it all night," Tom said. I mentioned that returning to the camera the next day has to feel like opening a gift on Christmas morning without knowing what's in it. "That's exactly how it is," Pauline said. "It's the best feeling."

"But you can often get coal too," she warned.

Two hours to the start.

Seven hours later, we were ready for the show. The launch, originally scheduled for 23:30 ET, had been postponed to 02:30 ET, which meant we had a much longer night than planned. And I did not have coffee.

Instead of getting my caffeine fixation, I infused my body with bug spray and filed for it A bus with Pauline driving towards a causeway in Florida that would give us a great view of the start. We took a small seat for ourselves, and I began to set up my shot and position the frame so that the launch pad was in the lower left corner of my shot. I knew the rocket would fly up and right into the sky.

Then we just had to wait. As the minutes passed, I thought to myself alone of my camera out there on the block. I worried about his safety, but my nerves were jealous. It really had a first place in the story.

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The rocket shot up as expected and after about three and a half minutes, the main engine turned off and the two outer booster broke away. At that point I released the trigger to finish my shot and stared at the camera screen. A second later I gasped. There it was! The strip, right there on my camera. It was a bit overexposed, but I did it.

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I did not have much time to celebrate – four minutes later the boosters re-started their engines. I adjusted my shot to put the landing pads in the frame, squeezed the trigger and started another long exposure. The two cores lit up above us like candlesticks floating above us. A few minutes later, they re-ignited their engines and performed a synchronized routine that gently lowered them to their landing sites. Again, my camera delivered. Another long exposure with light stripes. My delight was interrupted by six supersonic pops – a big thank you from the returning boosters.

15 hours after launch

The launch was a distant dream at about four hours of sleep, but the expectation of When I saw my photos, I was full of energy. In a bus surrounded by photographers who had done this dozens of times, my anxiety reached its peak. I knew I would be ashamed if I did not get close-ups. At least I had my two continuous shots done, I thought. But I wanted the hat-trick.

Back in the circle of the launch pad everyone was off the bus while I left carefully. I trudged to my camera. At least it was still where I left it. I pressed the MIOPS + trigger. It trilled and indicated that it still worked. I took out the poles holding the tripod to the floor and put all my gear on the bus.

While everyone else had tablets and computers to immediately upload their photos 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. Mentally, I prepared to see nothing.

I got coal, I thought.

Then I saw it. A touch of blue smoke. I scrolled farther back and the bright flames of the engines penetrated my shot, as if the rocket were firing backwards. I had caught it The enthusiasm I felt during the launch flowed through me again.

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