Backstory: How to capture a rocket

(Reuters) – “It’s a challenge to describe that noise,” says Reuters senior photographer Mike Blake, after witnessing his first rocket launch.

“It’s a sound of rippling energy. Reverberating, cracking. It’s something that stays with you.”

Falcon Heavy liftoff in April 2019

Blake worked with Joe Skipper, a veteran of more than 200 launches, to produce Reuters visual coverage of SpaceX out of Kennedy Space Center in Florida in March.

Photographers Joe Skipper and Thom Baur set-up remote cameras around the Crew Drago spacecraft as it sits on launch pad 39A before the uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Apart from the visual thrill of a launch, readers want to know as much as possible about Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which resupplies the International Space Station and ultimately aims to put people on other planets.

Providing images is key to capturing the drama of a launch and whether it is successful, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

The next launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled for Friday, May 3. The day before a launch slated for coverage, Skipper will assemble three or more freelance and staff photographers to set up 10 automatic cameras and associated gear on the perimeter of the launchpad.

NASA, which has run the Kennedy Space Center from Apollo missions in the late 1960s through the Space Shuttle era, takes photographers to a few select spots nearby where they can set up remote cameras with a view of the rocket, which is as tall as a 23-story building.


Where Reuters’ cameras and photographers are around Launchpad 39A

The cameras are housed in boxes to protect them from the elements as they have to stand at the ready for eight hours or more, exposed to potentially drastic temperature and weather changes.

Inside the boxes, small electric fans blow on the camera lenses to prevent dew forming, which could result in blurry images. The Reuters crew adjusts focus, exposure, tests the automatic triggers and secures the tripods to the ground. 

See some recent Reuters space launch photographs and the story behind them

The cameras are connected to sound sensors and take shots automatically when something loud occurs, like a rocket with 1.7 million pounds of thrust launching nearby. 

A photographer looks at a remote-controlled camera deployed to photograph space shuttle Atlantis in 2006.September 6, 2006. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

“Setting up cameras with triggers is not rocket science itself but having them sit there for up to 24 hours and keeping moisture off them and not having batteries fail is a little more complicated,” says Blake.

The media area to observe launches is about 3 miles (4.8 km) away. After setting up the remote cameras, photographers disperse to take up positions to get longer-range images. 

Photographers line up at sunset to photograph the unmanned Falcon 9 rocket at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S.,February 8, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Audette/File Photo

The top of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building gives a direct view of the launchpad across the low-lying wetlands. Another photographer will stand on top of the Reuters building in the media site.

The combination of close-up and long-range viewpoints is designed to produce a variety of shots.

“We’re there close-up in case something happens,” says Skipper.

Reuters photographer Thom Baur set a remote camera up to get a tight shot of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the water deluge system as it lifts off on an uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station in March. The water deluge system is used to reduce the massive amount of heat and energy created during a launch. Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., March 2, 2019. REUTERS/Thom Baur/File Phot

At the same time, it is important to capture the bigger picture. One Reuters shot of the launch in March, used by media outlets worldwide, showed the boosters returning to land from the vantage point of a beach, as birds fly past and a crowd of people watch, giving a wider perspective to the event.

Spectators watch from Jetty Park as booster rocket engines approach landing pads, after a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, carrying the Arabsat 6A communications satellite, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral , Florida, U.S., April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Rimkus Jr./File Photo

“That’s the one we wanted to do,” says Skipper, who researched locations from a previous launch and instructed one of his photographers to take up his position on the beach. Another Reuters shot from 2000 showed surfers watching the shuttle going up.

Surfers watch the liftoff of the space shuttle Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean near Cocoa Beach, Florida, in 2000.Photo by Reuters/Duffin Mcgee

“That shows something a little different from what people think is going on,” says Skipper.

The SpaceX Commercial Crew demo has an early morning liftoff from Launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in March, as seen from the top of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building.Photo by Reuters/Mike Blake
Slideshow (17 Images)


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Top video: Falcon Heavy liftoff in April 2019 compiled from a series of still images captured by a remote camera.

Reporting by Travis Hartman. Photography by Mike Blake, Rick Wilking, Scott Audette, Thom Baur, Joe Rimkus Jr. and Duffin Mcgee. Map by Christine Chan. Editing by Bill Rigby


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