By Kelly Calagna
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – Duct tape, bubble wrap, aluminum foil, plastic bags, ground stakes, bungee cords, squares of plywood and plastic storage containers are just some of the sophisticated tools adapted by journalists and photographers as they set up their remotely activated cameras at Saturday’s GOES-R weather satellite launch site at the Kennedy Space Center.
There is no “standard equipment” when it comes to protecting a camera from the intense exhaust of a space rocket, so each individual must MacGyver his or her own unique contraption for the job—that’s where the storage containers come in.
“You get anything out here from a plastic bag to a homemade box. You can’t go down and buy a box. You make it,” said Julian Leek, a freelance photographer who has been shooting NASA launches since Apollo 7 in 1968.
These launch camera contraptions are the products of a unique need met by individual ingenuity. Each is a work of art, and like snowflakes, no two are the same. Those that survived and successfully triggered during Saturday’s launch captured stunning images of the most advanced weather satellite’s last moments on Earth.
Most launch camera setups involve a box of sorts made of plastic or aluminum that house a camera and a remote device, which activates the shutter by either sound or a timer.
Journalists and photographers develop homemade kits, such as this one, to protect their cameras as they remotely capture NASA rocket launches. Kelly Calagna/MEDILL
John Studwell, photographer for AmericanSpace, uses masking tape to secure one of his camera rigs. Kelly Calagna/MEDILL
Some cameras are set up with plastic bags in an effort to keep moisture out of the lens. Whether it is rain, morning dew or Florida humidity, any wetness within the lens could be problematic. Kelly Calagna/MEDILL
Photographer Charles Twine sets his video camera’s homemade timer for launch. Kelly Calagna/MEDILL
The box is then placed atop a tripod that is either staked into the ground or otherwise attached to surrounding anchors, like nearby rail ties or stationary structures close to the launch pad. The goal is for their cameras to survive the rocket’s blast without damage from debris or being blown over.
In addition to the danger from the rocket, the cameras are also at risk of damage due to any form of precipitation. From the morning dew to Florida’s humid climate, the journalists and photographers have developed ways to keep moisture out.
“I’ve had lenses that got waterlogged because of rain—two of them,” said Ken Kremer from Universe Today. To prevent this, many wrap their devices in plastic bags or tape their camera containers to be airtight.
Leek even developed his own lens heaters to dry up any condensation in his lenses. “It’s a ring that goes around. It’s got Velcro on it, it’s got tape on it, it’s got cables on it, it’s got a timer on it, it’s got another battery on it. And you set that timer two hours before the launch and the heater comes on and it heats that lens up … and goes ahead and dries it out.”
After the rocket is well on its way, the journalists and photographers return to the barren launch pad to collect their machinery or — in some cases, what’s left of it — and anxiously check to see how their contraptions performed in capturing the event.
Photographer John Studwell retrieves one of his camera rigs post launch. Kelly Calagna/MEDILL
“No matter what launch you do, you look at it as an experiment because you never know what’s going to happen. Things just happen,” said Lane Hermann, author and freelance space journalist, “You get what you get, and if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.”
The launch occurred at 6:42 p.m. EST and within a few hours NASA’s Pam Sullivan, the GOES-R mission director, confirmed the craft had successfully deployed its solar arrays. However, it will take GOES-R, now called GOES-16 after deployment, nine days to phase into its planned orbital route and about five months before it is fully operational.
Saturday’s GOES-R launch activities can be viewed on NASA Television, and further updates and information can be accessed at goes-r.gov.
Each camera rig offers a unique design. From plastic storage bins to self-welded boxes, each photographer has developed a personalized method for keeping cameras protected to capture remote, close-range launch images. Kelly Calagna/MEDILL
Photographers and journalists set up remote devices to activate the shutter, either by timer or sound, when the launch begins. Kelly Calagna/MEDILL
When you compare the pre-launch photo of equipment on the left to the post-launch photo on the right you can see just how powerful the exhaust blast from the rocket is. Besides the corrosive fuel residue caking the lens, you can see the bottom of the container has been strained apart. Kelly Calagna/MEDILL
To prevent cameras from blowing away in the blast, they are either staked into the ground, or taped or cable tied to fixed objects; such as these attached to a metal figure near the pad. Kelly Calagna/MEDILL
Photographrs set up their cameras to protect gear for impact of remotely-triggered launch close-ups.