SpaceX Falcon Heavy Demonstration Flight
I’ve been looking forward to this launch for years!
Finally, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket was ready for launch after years of delays. Unfortunately, we were approved to shoot the launch at the last minute so we did not get any prime photography locations to set up at but it was still an experience to see this long-awaited rocket blast off.A day before the launch SpaceX allowed members of the media to go out to Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) to set up remote cameras and get some b-roll of the rocket on the pad. It would be the closest we would be allowed to view the rocket before launch…. if it launched. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that he would be surprised if it made it off the launchpad and hoped if it did blow up it would do so away from the launch pad so it wouldnt be damaged. Days before launch Musk doubted that the rocket would actually lift off, let alone deploy his personal Tesla Roadster towards a Mars orbit. By the time you read this you probably already know that the rocket actually DID launch and everything did go as planned. But for us at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, we were starting to question if this thing would actually work.
It was the first time this configuration of a rocket would be launch and it was publicized as a demonstration flight aka a test flight. The rocket is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. Something that has never been done. Once the rocket lifts off it would release a Tesla Roadster, then land all three rocket cores back to earth. The outer cores would land at Landing Zone 1 and 2 and KSC and the center core would land on a drone ship off in the Atlantic. This was crazy talk! I mean SpaceX launched and landed rockets many times before, but this is the first time three would simultaneously land. Exciting stuff for us space nerds.While us photographers were driving around LC-39A in a KSC bus we all chatted about our thoughts about the launch, shared stories of previous launches and had a great time. One thing that stuck with me was a piece of advice from a very experienced photog riding the bus that day. He has covered many many launches including the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and told me to make sure I have a wide lens… I already planned to have a wide (17-40mm) with me but I wanted to hear his thoughts. He said when he shot the Challenger explosion all he had was a 600mm lens and was zoomed all the way in. He couldn’t get a wide shot of the debris falling back to earth and he always regretted that. Point taken.
Ok, let’s talk gear. I was fortunate enough to shoot the last 5 space shuttle launches so I was familiar with the area around the KSC press site, which is about 3 miles from the launch pad. The plan was to shoot with a 500mm on a tripod pointing at the rocket on the launchpad and that would be fired with a remote trigger. I would then hand hold a Canon 400mmDO lens and track the rocket all the way until booster separation. I would then try and track the boosters coming down for a landing. Since this was my first SpaceX launch I wasn’t unsure as to where the boosters would land. I later found out that the Press Site is a good place to shoot launches but bad for booster landings. The last thing I had was my trusty Sony a6300 shooting video with a 70mm lens just in case there was an explosion I can get all angles.
I like to think I’m a good luck charm for launches. Every time I have been at the press site we had a launch. Including Space Shuttle Atlantis’ final flight where the weather was an issue and the launch looked like it might be scrubbed…. NOPE within a few minutes before the launch window closed Atlantis was GO for Launch! So I was hoping my good luck mojo rubbed off on the Falcon Heavy.
As I sat there chatting it up with other photogs there was a common theme… most people thought it was gonna scrub or blow up. Not many people actually thought it was gonna work. But honestly… I felt it was going to work all along….. I was right. It launched and it was amazing to see, hear and feel a rocket launch again, a feeling I missed from the Space Shuttle days, it was great. Seeing the two boosters come in for a landing for the first time was also an unforgettable moment. I knew it was real, but it looked totally fake, like a movie. It was wild. Unfortunately I missed the shot of the boosters actually landing. It was tricky and although I tracked it coming down I lost it as it came through the clouds. By the time I spotted it again it was too late. They landed.
Back at the press site it was time to file photos and check out the launch replay. Since we were out in the field we could only listen to the launch director on a secure phone conference. And although we saw the launch with our eyes and through our lenses we did not see if the Tesla Roadster actually happened. It was unreal to see Starman sitting in the Tesla being streamed live on it’s way to Mars.