A couple of weeks ago, we all set off to Orlando, Florida – to “do the parks”. It’s a festival of queuing: queue-fest 2016. Queue technology is in full swing with “fast passes” and apps with queue times that will optimise your queuing. The queuing is punctuated with 2 minutes of being thrown about or on a tour of some animated display. It’s not my thing – but we were there for the kids – and they had a whale of a time – which is all that matters.
On Sunday though we drove out to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Centre. When we flew into Orlando over the east coast of Florida you could clearly see the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on the flat landscape below. Not surprising as it’s the biggest single storey building in the world. This is where they assembled the Saturn V rockets for the Apollo programme and prepped space-shuttles for launch. We took the tour out to the Saturn V centre (and more on that later) and our driver, Steve just happens to mention that there’s a launch on the following Thursday probably around 8:37am, and we might all like to come back for that.
How could I pass this up? The chance to shoot a launch? Who knew you could just turn up? No way was I letting this pass me by. So, I got up at 3:30am on Thursday, and drove for 2 hours back to the Cape, and was out on the “bleachers” for 6am. The “bleachers” are bench seats, out at the Saturn V centre that face out over the Banana River to the launch complex on the opposite shore. These are no ordinary random benches either – they are the original extruded aluminium bleachers that all the astronauts’ families and other VIPs sat on to watch the Apollo launches. There’s a real sense of history to the place, especially as it’s a working space port – you just see all kinds of extraordinary stuff all around the place. The Atlas 5 rocket in “421” configuration with 2 solid rocket boosters and a central “Centaur” rocket motor was out on Launch Complex 41 – ready to deliver it’s US government payload into orbit. The payload was classified but assumed to be some form of surveillance satellite.
The launch window was from 8:00am to 12 noon, however it was almost certain to go up at 8:37am. Nobody pushes a button anymore: it’s all down to the launch software. If it is happy with the weather and the telemetry from the vehicle, it launches. Now, I had no idea how you shoot an orbital launch (!), but figured that the rocket exhaust would be much brighter than the sky. The sun would be almost dead ahead but a bit higher in the sky, and having seen launches on the TV before, I knew that whilst it’s going pretty quick, at some 5 miles distance, I wasn’t going to need an amazing shutter speed. So, dialling in minus 1 and 1 thirds exposure compensation at f/8 gave me a shutter speed of 1/1250 at ISO 64. I took some test shots and well, they looked ok, but of course there was no rocket plume so the rest of my exposure was in the hands of the Nikon and Sony engineers that created the D810 sensor. The radio chatter was fed into the loudspeakers so we could hear the launch crew reading out updates. However, our NASA host revealed that it isn’t always live….. and sure enough, as we listened to the countdown at around t-15, smoke and dust suddenly shot out sideways from the launch pad and the Atlas 5 rocket lifted off. Silently. Silent that is, until it had been going about 5 seconds, and then came the air splitting noise, like continuous lightning. The camera was already focused, and I held it still and nailed the shutter. As the rocket got towards the top of the frame I swapped to a vertical orientation and zoomed out a bit, getting the sun it as well, for some more arty shots of the smoke. Exposure was pretty much on the money and everything was within the limits of the sensor. The Nikon 28-300mm super-zoom I take on these trips is not the best for this – something like 500mm would have been ideal, however it did a fair job, and after some clean-up in Lightroom, including the new “de-haze” control I got a reasonable shot. The 4 pylons you can see around the launch pad are lightning conductors. They have lighting, almost every other night over Florida – it can sparkle almost non-stop in the sky for hours, as rain comes down by the bucket-load.
The SRBs dropped away and the Atlas carried on into orbit, leaving just these eerie smoke stacks behind, lit by the early morning sun. Backlit smoke – it’s the way to go :). It was a piece of luck this opportunity came my way – and it was well worth the 2 hour drive in the middle of the night. I’ll post up some more on the rest of the Space Centre soon. If you are going to Florida – you must make the trip out to the Cape, and take the tour.