I grew up as a space nerd. One of my fondest memories as a kid was pouring over a book that my parents got me that covered the history of space exploration. I think I probably destroyed it from reading it so often and yet even today I can recall the diagrams and photos and articles from it. I was extremely sad when I heard that the shuttle was being retired because I was just entering the age and time that I could actually make it down to see it get launched.
So when I heard that there was a launch that was taking a probe to the moon, and it was happening in Virginia, I was excited. Not, “Hey, there is a launch happening in VA” excited. No, this was 10 year old SNES kid “HOLY CARP THEY ARE SHOOTING A ROCKET AT THE MOON FROM MY BACK YARD” excited. Needless to say, I told Sarah we were going to see it. (Thankfully, she is as much of a nerd as I am and there was no question about our attendance)
Wallops Island Flight Facility is on the very coast of VA. The good news is that it’s only 130 miles from my house. The bad news is that because of the roads, it’s driving 205 miles. The plan was to leave early on Friday morning and spend the day down there getting ready for the launch. Well, best laid plans…. Sarah ended up with an interview at noon, and I have a phone interview that popped up at 1:30pm. So we couldn’t leave until around 4pm. This got us there at around 8:30pm (Launch was slated for 11:30pm). Well, parking sucked.
Sarah dropped me off at a small pier on the causeway to Chincoteague island and attempted to park, but found nothing so she went to the Marina on the island (a good 20min drive from me) to watch the launch. The location I was at was perfect, right across from the launch pad, hardly any light pollution, and not a huge crowd. Sarah was MUCH close to the launch pad (6 miles to my 8), but it was crowded with families, and not as much place to set up to shoot. (from what I understand, her view was amazing, just got great for what I was doing).
Back to the idea that I was going to take pictures of the launch. This is something I had never done before. It was a nighttime launch, so I knew it was going to be bright, but not how bright. Do I track it? Do I take various shots as it goes up? Do I do a long exposure? Why hadn’t I looked this up?!? I had NO CLUE WHAT I WAS DOING!!! Yeah, these were all thoughts that went through my head while I was there. I defaulted to my instincts and shot what I knew. Did some Long Exposure of the facility and the stars. I figured that I would just have to be quick and snap the pics as they came. Needless to say I learned a LOT, very fast.
When shooting a launch here is what I picked up:
- Rule #1: Launches happen VERY FAST. Be prepared
- Rule #2: They are VERY BRIGHT. I was still 8 miles from the launch pad and it lit up the whole area.
- Rule #3: Relating to rule #1, You get 1 shot at it. It’s not like they will do another launch in 2 min.
- Rule #4: Take a few shots, then put down the camera and admire the fact that we are launching something into space!
When the launch happened, I adjusted, fired, adjusted, fired, followed, fired, followed, fired, and then done. I had no idea what I got. The screen on my D600 only gave me a small hint. I watched the rocket as it arced across the sky, watched the different stages and marveled at it’s glory. Only after it had become a tiny speck did I feel the anxiety of “Did I get a good picture?”
I posted to Facebook and Twitter that the launch was amazing and that I hope I got a good shot. Then all the various responses came in of “Missed the launch, can’t wait to see your pics” and “I know you got a good one, can’t wait!” Oh god, the pressure was on now. I know it sounds silly, but I was seriously worried. I checked the photos transferred to my iPad while I waited for Sarah to make the traffic crazy drive back to pick me up. The pictures were just ok, but it was dark, and the iPad screen is only so good. Plus, I couldn’t do the level of processing to really reveal the picture behind the picture. Did I mess up my first launch?
Sarah picked me up and we found some sleazy motel to crash in and I think I drifted off at around 2am. The next day we spent exploring Chincoteague Island. I didn’t get back to my PC to process until late Saturday.
I spent probably a good 2 hours working on 5 pictures. 3 Rocket shots and 2 star field shots. The good news is…. I am happy with them. The better news is, I know what I can do to improve for the next time.
Also, I need to stop being so hard on myself.