Innovation on the launch pad: How media capture a NASA rocket launch

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.

 

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.

“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.

Photographrs set up their cameras to protect gear for impact of remotely-triggered launch close-ups.