SpaceFlight Insider Photo Spectacular: Lords of Light & Dark – SpaceX, Falcon 9 v1.1 & Thaicom 6
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — It was the night before a launch – this is not a time of peace or quiet, but rather one of frantic scrambling, trying to get things in order before the “Big Day.” Unfortunately for myself and the rest of “Team Canaveral” – things were about to get a lot more chaotic…
Checking my email while stuffing my backpack for the launch activities set to take place on Jan. 6, 2014 – I noted one from SpaceX’s Hannah Post. The email’s title was: SpaceX Remote Camera Media Advisory. SpaceX has not had any remote camera setups for launches of the new version of the Falcon 9 which was poised to hoist the Thaicom 6 spacecraft to orbit on the following day – as such none of the team was ready. We needed to be at the designated place at 8 a.m. EST the following day – and it was already after 8 p.m. when we got the word. I hurriedly contacted both Mike Howard and John Studwell. They were caught off guard, but being professionals, they flew into action and got ready to place the sound-activated cameras around the perimeter of Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40.
The media likes to be able to provide the public with the stunning shots from the center of the action and we grumbled about not being able to do so for the past two missions. Secretly I suspected the restrictions on remotes were put in place so SpaceX could get a few launches of the rocket under their belt first. While this might not have been the case (I still don’t really know why – but, in the end, it’s SpaceX’s call), the fact that SpaceX was now working with us – was a welcome change.
The following day SpaceX’s media relations officers, Emily Shanklin and Hannah Post, greeted us. They were super to work with, provided us with the specifics to allow us to efficiently do our job and provided us with guidance so as to keep us out of harm’s way. It was one of the smoothest remote setups I’ve ever attended. We were in and out in under an hour. Of course, it helped that there were only really two groups which were setting up remotes – SpaceFlight Now and The SpaceFlight Group.
Those of us who had long drives to get there – were pretty tired. Mike Howard is local. John and I, who both drive a couple hours to get to the Cape had arranged to get rooms with our sponsor, Beach Island Resort. After snapping a few last shots of the Falcon 9 on the pad, we loaded the bus and were on our way.
An Inconvenient Nap
Launch days, are wild, wooly and wonderfully chaotic. This one was no exception. Upon getting to the hotel, I barely had time to get a brief catnap. Running around, making sure we had images on our various social media – I was frazzled. I had stepped outside for a moment when a voice from the other room snapped me out of the “zone” I was in. “You suck at getting some rest – you know that?” It was John, gently nudging me to get some rest before the remainder of the day kicked off.
He was right however, and while I doubt I got any real sleep, I did get rested enough to lumber through the remainder of the day. We had to be back at Space Florida’s parking lot just outside of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Gate 1 at 3:30 p.m. EST. At 2:45 p.m. I heard John call out, “Jason?” I’m not sure what I mumbled as I drooled contently on the pillow but within a few minutes we were on our way. The “nap” had not really helped much, it had only left me wanting a longer snooze.
Upon reaching our destination we were greeted by representatives of the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing. Chris Calkins greeted with his customary: “HOOAH!” (We’re both former soldiers with the U.S. Army). Emily and Hannah were there too, ready to support the media as we covered the launch. With the media appropriately corralled, we convoyed into Cape Canaveral and commenced setting up even more cameras.
The Cloud of Doom
Weather is…temperamental in Florida. There have been launches where veterans of numerous liftoffs have sworn there would be no launch – only to have a hole in the clouds appear directly above the launch pad 10 minutes prior to launch, have the mission get underway and then have the hole in the sky close again shortly after the launch vehicle disappeared from sight (Launch of OTV-3). About 10 minutes prior to Monday’s launch, the sun peeked from beneath the clouds and illuminated the Falcon 9. “Launch now! Launch the thing right now!” This response came from my good friend Craig Bailey with Florida Today. Craig is one of the best aerospace photographers in the business and is a wonderful and funny guy to work alongside. It would have been perfect if the launch had happened right then and there – but there still was about 15 minutes to go.
Passing by another of the amazing photographers who regularly cover these events, Ben Cooper, we started chatting about the weather. He stated that he doubted we would get the lighting we were currently getting. Sure enough, clouds crept in and silenced the Sun. “Great job Ben, you just called in the Cloud of Doom.
Lords of Dark and Light
As mentioned and despite everyone’s wishes, the clouds rolled in. We went back to the task at hand and focused on the launch. SpaceX launches are exciting, engaging and…unpredictable. Each launch is unique and each SpaceX launch even more so. This one? Happened right on time and it happened loud. The acoustics set teeth rattling as the powerful launch vehicle thundered off the pad and into the heavens. It was a glorious sight, well worth a few hours of lost sleep. It also proved that when it came to lighting conditions, of whether it was going to be light or dark out – SpaceX called the shots.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.