A Game Changer

“Wow! Is that it?”

On the evening of February 5, we squinted at launch pad 39A some 11 miles away brightly lit against the pitch-blackness of the Cape Canaveral, Florida coastline. On the Kennedy Space Center pad sat the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket poised for a maiden voyage into history. Fellow AAA member Antoine Ribaut and I had been planning to photograph the launch for weeks, and once the launch time was announced, we booked tickets to Orlando and flew down together from New York, arriving the evening before the launch, and drove immediately to Titusville to scout the best location for our cameras. Following Stan Honda’s suggestion, we decided to shoot from the center of the Max Brewer Bridge, which spans 3,200 feet over the Intracoastal Waterway at Titusville.

The next morning in the 5am darkness we invaded the bridge mid-span, unloaded our car in moments, and annexed the 30foot wide south–facing scenic overlook 80 feet over the waterway. This was the exact best position on the bridge from which to shoot the Falcon Heavy launch.

At 7:08am the sun began to peak over the horizon at Cape Canaveral to the right of the launch site, meanwhile a huge line of traffic had filled our bridge stretching for miles along the parkway – all of them creeping slowly eastward towards the Atlantic coast and/or jockeying for positions along the highway to get a view.

By noon, more and more people were streaming onto the bridge, staking out places in anticipation of the launch window opening at 2:30pm. People were buzzing with excitement, asking Antoine and me about the launch, our gear, and what we were doing. Of the many around us, the most helpful was “Louie,” a retired rocket inspector for ULA (United Launch Alliance). Louie was a pro and an invaluable source of info, giving us the “play-by-play” analysis as we asked him to glean and interpret sporadic Internet updates. High-level wind shear was the principal reason for delay, and a series of weather balloons were dispatched over the course of the afternoon to assess downrange viability.

We had plenty of time to prepare. My rig was a Tamron 150600mm G2 zoom lens, attached to a Sony a7R2. I was shooting completely in manual, at F/11, iso 600, 1/1,500 of a second, in manual focus. To prevent the intense brightness of the rockets flame from under exposing the images, I followed Stan’s recommendations to preset the exposure in manual, using the blue sky as my “18% gray card.“ Auto-focus was used on the launch pad (infinity), and then locked by switching back to manual. This prevented the lens from constantly “hunting” for focus during the rocket ascent.

credit: Antoine Ribaut
Closeup, ascending trail

Finally the big moment came, and Falcon Heavy lifted off as the crowd roared and hooted. I was so locked into my viewfinder that when I finally glanced over the top of the camera to sneak a peak, I thought it had exploded. But no, the rocket flame was simply much brighter live than through my viewfinder. Wow, truly amazing.

Finally I lost sight of Falcon Heavy. But as the crowd stood tense with excitement and anticipation, someone finally yelled, “There it is!” And people erupted in to screams and hoots as we watched the twin boosters fire simultaneously on their return like meteors to earth. Firing first at high altitude to reduce speed on the descent, and another burn for final approach and touchdown, followed by two sonic booms! The crowd went crazy, yelling, cheering, and high-fiving – an amazing communal experience.

“…a real game changer!”

This was a bucket list thing for me – my first launch. I had to see history unfold for myself with this historic flight. Antoine and I packed up and headed for a bar/restaurant in Coco Beach close to our hotel. The bar was buzzing about the launch. A real estate guy at the bar grabbed me by the arm and declared, “This launch is a real game changer!” Everyone was affected. And he’s right – a real game changer. Very cool.

credit: Preston Stahly
Booster return- The two side booster rockets fire their engines as they descend to the landing spot at Cape Canaveral.

 

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