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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.

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