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.



NASA launch on Monday will help pave way to life on Mars

Monday, November 18th, marks the first launch window for NASA’s next mission to Mars. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), is NASA’s tenth Mars orbiter to be launched since 1996. MAVEN is the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mar’s upper atmosphere. This mission has three primary objectives:

  1. Determine the history of the structure and composition of the Martian upper atmosphere.
  2. The cause and rate that gasses escape the atmosphere to space.
  3. Use collected data to measure the prognosis of future atmospheric loss.


mars rover

Graphic Artist uses GIMP to Visualize KSR's Red Mars

Space elevator cable rising from Mars in the town of Sheffield, as depicted by Kim Stanley Robinson in Red Mars. Made with GIMP by Ludovic Celle.
Space elevator cable rising from Mars in the town of Sheffield, as depicted by Kim Stanley Robinson in Red Mars. Made with GIMP by Ludovic Celle.

Graphic artist Ludovic Celle has been an open source convert for about 10 years. His first step was trading in Windows for Unbuntu. A couple years after that, transitioned from programs like Sketchup and Photoshop to an open source arsenal of Blender, Inkscape, and GIMP. His artwork is proof of the unsung creative muscle of open source software.

In 2007, Celle read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and has been compelled to create images about the book ever since. He primarily uses images from Wikimedia Commons of deserts and mountains for these photo manipulations. Fourteen of his Red Mars images are currently on exhibit at the central library in Grenoble, France. The images are large ranging in size from 40 cm (15 in) to 140 cm (55 in) wide, with a photomosaic, made from 588 images, that is 240 cm (94 in) wide. With images so large it can be easy to miss some of the smaller details like Mars settlers walking through vast deserts, people in the windows of bamboo habitats, and the buildings that populate the domed settlements.




New Golden Age of Spaceflight

Richard Garriott thinks we are heading into a new golden age of human space flight. One of the first things he mentioned in his SXSW talk was that just over 500 people have left the planet in 50 years of space flight. While he’s happy to be one of those people he agrees that number is dismal. When you factor the costs involved of sending those 500 people to space, the number is especially bleak. Just look at the overview of the International Space Station (ISS) it cost tens of billions to develop and a couple billion to maintain each year. The Shuttle was a couple hundred million per seat and the Souyoz, while cheaper, is about $50 million per seat. These enormous costs are one of the barriers to advancing human space exploration.



DIY Space

Space Exploration is a new theme to South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive. One of the courses that caught my attention was Crowd-Sourcing the Space Frontier. The session shed light on several hands-on opportunities for space enthusiasts.

Edward Wright, of the United States Rocket Academy, thinks we are entering a third age of space. The first age being government driven and the second age provided wealthy individuals opportunity to travel to space. The third age is do-it-yourself transportation, technology, and research. Wright compares what’s happening with space right now to what we experienced with personal computing. When parts to build computers became readily accessible, there was a great increase in computing innovation.



Pinehead will be at SXSW Interactive!!

March is turning of to be a super lucky month for me. Last week I was representing Pinehead at the SpaceX launch at the Kennedy Space Center and this week I’m representing Pinehead at South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive! SXSW is most known as a music and film festival but last year Interactive hosted about 19,000 people, about a third of attendees at the three SXSW conferences.

So I wanted your input on what you’d like covered. Think of me as your conference robot, I will report form the sessions you are interested in. There are two tracks I’m focused on, Space and Open Source but if there is something you’d like me to attend, just speak up! Below is a list of some of courses in those two areas with links to the course descriptions. Leave a comment if you’d like me to attend a particular session and/or if you have any questions you’d liked me to ask.


Vehicle Assembly Building

Putting a Finger on the Pulse of NASA

I represented Pinehead as a part of a recent NASA Social event which allowed social media users access on the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to cover the SpaceX CRS-2 launch on Friday, March 1. The day before the launch we were shown the Vehicle Assembly Building, launch pads, attended press conferences and science briefings, and had Q&A time with NASA officials.

If you think about space travel in the United States today, the outlook can seem dismal. The most recent major news about NASA has been the Shuttle retirement and the $726 million NASA will lose to sequestration. It’s no wonder people think NASA is closing down. What I discovered during my time KCS is, while budgets and active programs may be reduced, momentum at NASA has not been shaken.



Pinehead Will Be At The SpaceX Launch!

I’m so happy to announce that I’m going to be able to cover the launch from Cape Canaveral!! NASA chooses up to 50 social media users and grants them the same access to the launch as new media. The goal is to align the experience of the two media groups recognizing social media groups can reach audiences traditional news media may not.

The launch is currently scheduled for Friday, March 1 at 10:10 EST. The day before the launch there will be a whole day of briefings of press conferences so I will be bringing you updates through out the day.

Have questions about the launch, Falcon 9, Dragon, or Space Station? Post your questions in the comments below and I’ll do my best to get them answered. Looks like we will go to:

  • Ground Systems Briefing
  • ISS Science Press Conference
  • Heliophysics News Briefing (will be broadcast on NASA TV)
  • Pre-launch Press Conference.

We will also be meeting with Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, and Jim Adams, NASA’s deputy chief technologist.



That’s right, if you show Pinehead and Tyra some love and re-tweet some of the live tweets that are going on, we are giving away a boat load of shirts! How many? Not sure, probably at least ten!

CRS-1 Launch

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon: Little Bang for your Buck

SpaceX is eleven years old, has six successful launches on the books, and forty-one missions scheduled between now and 2017. Their next mission, CRS-2, for NASA is scheduled for launch on March 1. This launch is the second of twelve contracted between NASA and SpaceX to completed by 2015.

Still frame from the CRS-1 webcast of the Falcon 9 pressure relief panels being ejected.
Still frame from the CRS-1 webcast of the Falcon 9 pressure relief panels being ejected.

The Falcon 9 and Dragon last flew in October 2012. The Dragon docked successfully with the International Space Station (ISS) and came back to earth safely. What seemed to get the most press coverage during the mission was an issue being reported as an engine explosion. About a minute and nineteen seconds into the CRS-1 launch there was what looked like an engine explosion. This was not an explosion but an example of Falcon 9 redundancy in action. The Falcon rocket detected a sudden loss in pressure in Merlin engine 1 and issued a command to shutdown. The burst, debris, and plume of smoke were the pressure relief panels being ejected to protect engine 1 and surrounding engines. The flight computer then recalculated a new ascent profile and the Dragon continued on to the ISS.


SpaceX Engineers with Solar Panels

Solar Panels are Unique to SpaceX Dragon

This article is part of a series that covers key features of the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket for the upcoming SpaceX CRS 2 mission launching on March 1st at 10:10 a.m. EST.

After liftoff and separation from stage one of the Falcon 9 rocket, the SpaceX Dragon capsule must successfully perform several functions to get ready to dock with the ISS. A few minutes after the Dragon separates from the second stage of the Falcon, at about T+12:00, the sequence to activate the solar arrays starts. Try to recall the COTS 2/3 mission webcast, there was cheering from SpaceX employees after the solar arrays deployed. While SpaceX employees have a right to cheer about every aspect of the Falcon and Dragon, the solar arrays are unique. Most spacecraft similar to Dragon only use battery power.