My heart started pounding as our bus pulled closer to the launchpad. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket was long gone, but I didn’t 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 into the sky. If I had messed up, the images would just be black.
Normally, any angst I feel surrounding a rocket launch reaches its peak in the moments before the vehicle takes to the skies — not half a 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 gets old (even counting one launch shrouded in fog).
it was the perfect opportunity to finally try to see the launch through the lens
But I’ve always been focused on just watching these missions. When I saw my first launch — a Space Shuttle mission in the summer of 2008 — everyone gave me the same advice: see it with your own eyes. “The camera won’t do it justice,” people told me. Ultimately, they were right. While standing on the bleachers of a visitor viewing site in Cape Canaveral, Florida, 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. Instead, I just gazed in awe at the ascending vehicle.
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 try to 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 the “streak” or the “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 gather the light of the entire ascent. The result is a picture of a beautiful stream of light arcing into the distance. I also coveted a close-up shot of engine fire set against the darkness, taken close to 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 had my chance. But as we approached that pad, I still didn’t know whether 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’t get with other launches: the landing of the rocket’s two outer boosters. During flight, the Falcon Heavy’s outer cores break away and touch down on SpaceX’s landing pads at Cape Canaveral. If you time it right, you can also get a long-exposure shot of the pair returning to Earth.
An interview with Pauline Acalin
What inspired you to start following rocket launches and photographing them?
I’ve been to several NASA socials. The first launch one was for the SMAP launch at Vandenberg. That was the first launch I ever saw, and it was obviously amazing. After that, I just started getting really involved in tracking them all.
The thing that made me want to actually start [getting into] photojournalism was seeing the [Falcon 9] booster erected at Hawthorne, just being up close to it. That was my very first job covering a story for anything. And I’m just like, “I have got to continue doing this. This is incredible.”
When was the first time you tried to get a remote camera shot near the pad?
It took me a while to actually get media access because no one was interested in any photographers covering Vandenberg. So I couldn’t get any close-up shots. So I would have to apply for a launch in Florida, which I did through a media outlet that is no longer around. And it got me a little bit closer, about three miles away. Still, I wanted to get on base. My first media on-base coverage was for Sky and Telescope magazine for the first Falcon Heavy. That was my very first remote camera, and I just had one. And it worked. I was just like, “I’m hooked.” This was incredible. Obviously, you know the feeling now, right?
That’s what I’ve been saying to people. I feel like I got to bring a camera every time I do this now.
Every launch since then, I’ve just kind of added another camera, and added another camera. I have five now that I do. I gave Tom half of mine this time. So I only had a couple, but usually I have four or five.
What are some things that you’ve learned along the way that have helped make your photos better?
It’s one of those things where you can read all you want about it, but unless you actually test it and see what the outcome is, and then make adjustments next time, it’s really hard to plan what the image is going to look like. The differences in settings between day launches and night launches, it’s absolutely an ongoing learning process. You don’t want to try to take the same exact photos every time. You want to change it up a little bit. And by doing that, you’re having to take risks. That’s the fun part.
I’m assuming you plan on continuing to do this for the foreseeable future.
Oh, yeah. Heck yeah.
While I knew how to get these shots in theory, I hadn’t attempted to actually photograph a launch since that disastrous iPhone video I took in 2008. Fortunately for me, 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 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 just 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 rocket in flight.
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
The key to long-exposure photography is ensuring your camera remains incredibly still while the shutter stays 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 simply press a button on the cable trigger to take the picture and keep the shutter open until the Falcon Heavy’s main engines shut down after takeoff.
For my remote camera, I needed mostly the same equipment, except for a much nicer lens and a special accessory:
- A Canon 6D camera
- A tripod
- A 70-200mm lens
- An 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 onto the camera, the trigger can be programmed to wake the camera up when there are loud sounds nearby. I was going to have to abandon my camera for a whole day, so I would need 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 a launching rocket, getting loud noises to trigger the camera wouldn’t be an issue.
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. That meant it needed to withstand extreme heat and humidity — two things cameras don’t like very much.
She brought me a bag of goodies to keep my camera alive and upright
The plastic bag Pauline bought was going to be my camera’s shield, protecting it from rain or any other weird precipitation. To prep, we cut a hole in the bag and taped the opening around my camera’s lens as she told me how to set up my shot the next day. Once at the pad, I’d need to focus on the area I’d want to get my pictures, focus the camera on that spot, and then tape my lens down so that it wouldn’t shift and accidentally go out of focus throughout the night.
Since the launch was taking place at night, Pauline told me I’d also want 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 gave me one last piece of advice: charge everything
Pauline, truly a miracle worker, said there was an easy fix: the iconic red Solo cup, capable of holding beer or keeping liquid off a camera lens. Turns out, to MacGyver a lens shade, all you need is to slice up a Solo cup until it’s mouth fits around the lens, and tape it down. Voilà! You have a makeshift shade.
The last step of prep involved looping a few zip ties around the bottom legs of the tripod, which would connect to stakes I would hammer into the dirt the next day. I didn’t 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 had set up the camera on our table at Fish Lips. Now, I just had to do 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 eagerly showed her the Solo cup I had affixed 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 toward the launchpad.
Everyone on our bus started to buzz a little more loudly as we approached the fence
Everyone on our bus started to buzz a little 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 — a souvenir from the first time they had gone to space and back. We parked inside the perimeter, and rushed off the bus; we only 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 up 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 down 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. Each time I did, my camera trilled, 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 wouldn’t exhaust itself.
“I think I’m done?” I said to no one
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 camera 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.
Back at the press site, I found Pauline and Tom and told them how nervous I was. “Just wait, you’re going to think about it all night,” said Tom. I mentioned that returning to the camera the next day must feel like opening up a present on Christmas morning, not knowing what you’ll 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 coal,” she warned.
Two hours to launch
Seven hours later, we were ready for the show. The launch, originally set for 11:30PM ET, had been pushed to 2:30AM ET, which meant we were in for a much longer night than we had planned. And I didn’t have any coffee.
As the minutes ticked away, I thought about my camera out there by the pad all alone
Instead of getting my caffeine fix, I doused my body in bug spray and filed onto a bus with Pauline, bound for a Florida causeway that would offer us prime viewing of the launch. We staked out a little spot for ourselves, and I started setting up my shot, positioning the frame so that the launchpad was in the bottom left-hand corner of my shot, knowing that the rocket would arc into the sky up and to the 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 its safety, but my nerves were tinged with jealousy. It truly had a front-row seat to the action.
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 begin the long-exposure shot. In front of me, it seemed as if a small sun began to rise. For a few moments, the light from the 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 cameras sounded out.
There it was! The streak, right there on my camera
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.
I didn’t 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 onto their landing pads. Again, my camera delivered. Another long-exposure shot with streaks of light. My delight was punctuated by six sonic booms — a thank you from the returning boosters.
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. On a bus surrounded by photographers who had done this dozens of times before, my anxiety peaked. I knew I’d feel embarrassed if I had failed to get any close-ups. At least I had gotten my two streak shots, I thought. But I wanted the hat trick.
I wanted the hat trick
Back inside the perimeter of the launchpad, everyone darted 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 pulled out 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 back. Still black. Mentally, I prepared myself for not seeing anything.
I got coal, I thought.
Then I saw it. A faint hint of blue smoke. I scrolled back further 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.
I finally understood why people get so hooked on this lifestyle. It really was 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. 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.
Photography by Loren Grush / The Verge