Reliving SpaceX Falcon Heavy: A press photographer’s memoir, not so much a blog post

This is a long read but anything less wouldn’t do SpaceX’s history-in-the-making moment justice. Grab a coffee, find a cozy spot to relax, and relive my journey to SpaceX Falcon Heavy.

If you’re a SpaceX fan, like me, it might not come as much of a surprise to know that I’m still riding a high after witnessing history in the making on February 6, 2018, when Falcon Heavy made its maiden voyage from Cape Canaveral.

As a photojournalist and launch photographer that is a regular at the Space Center, which I affectionately call ‘The Edge of Earth’ because people and machines swing out into space from there: like leaping off the edge of a tall bridge attached to a rope swing. I’ve never seen anything quite like the attention that Falcon Heavy received from mainstream media, high profile people executives and celebrities.

Everything SpaceX learned and absorbed from developing new ideas, continuous iteration, taking the failures on the chin, and pushing through each launch with their vision until they got it right – all that struggle and experience gained until now went into that rocket. Falcon Heavy was simply a masterpiece. It had been on SpaceX’s vision-board for almost a decade. CEO Elon Musk said during the post-launch press conference, they tried canceling the Falcon Heavy program 3 times largely because of its 500 million dollar development cost and level of engineering difficulty. It was a lot harder than strapping three Falcon 9s together like they originally thought.

The center core had to be redesigned to withstand the unforeseen load nature would invariably put on the structure. Figuring out things like this is possibly the greatest engineering achievement by humans. There’s no manual provided by nature, everything has to be discovered in time, sometimes over generations, and tried through painful and expensive experience by insanely determined, brilliant, and talented people.

Falcon Heavy as seen a day before launch, February 5. (Tom Cross)

Even after all of Falcon Heavy’s rocket preparation and launch simulations, there was no telling if the launch of the 27-engined rocket would come to life. SpaceX had never launched a rocket this big before, all of the validation would come down to this test-flight. In a National Geographic behind the scenes video of Elon’s reaction to the launch, he shockingly commented “Holy flying fuck, it took off” when the rocket eventually left the pad at 0 after igniting at T-5 seconds. SpaceX had done the impossible yet again and I was determined to capture this impossible on camera.

L-2: Two days before launch

I’ve been saying this a lot lately – I don’t make art, I capture art with my photographs. They are a visual context of how the art makes me feel, or how I feel about it. The rocket, the launch, the science and manufacturing process is the art to me. The people who create it, build it, and make it happen are the artists.

The day after GovSat-1 launched, the SpaceX press email went out to Teslarati and I was ecstatic to learn that I had been accepted to cover the highly anticipated Demo Flight. Coffee in hand, I drove to the badge pickup location at a luxurious Cocoa Beach hotel. The press conference room was small, square, with three folding picnic tables figured in a U-shape in the center. Behind the tables were no less than five SpaceX media personnel, each looked like they hadn’t slept in a week.

Covering the tables were stacks of media badges attached to black lanyards, piled high and filling every square inch of the table-tops. Mindblown by the number of badges on the table, I asked: “How many are there?” They fit as many press as they could, “There are 400, so not everyone got the location they asked for.”

For context, when I originally applied for credentials, I was asked for my preferred locations for launch viewing and camera setup. SpaceX needed this information for planning purposes. Going into press day, none of the invitees knew if they got the spots they asked for until we each received our badges. After signing the media release form and showing ID, I was granted my press badge for the Falon Heavy launch. And luckily, I also received the exact setup and viewing location that I had originally requested.

From badge pickup, I excitedly drove to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center to take the bus tour around the launch pad and to the Saturn V viewing location. The visitor center was slow that day, considering most people were home watching the Super Bowl that Sunday before the launch. I was one of the few diehard rocket fans that was just hanging out.

I got a coffee from the Moon Rock Cafe and met my friend Brady Kenniston who had just flown in from Michigan and picked up his media badge. By coincidence, we ran into Bill Carton, SpaceX’s #1 fan, and the Admin of the FB SpaceX fan page. We spent nearly two hours beneath the Saturn V rocket geeking out about SpaceX’s past present and future, photographing Falcon Heavy, launch expectations, while taking a few mandatory selfies.

This meeting was the perfect buildup of what was to be an amazing next day.

Tom Cross, Brady Kenniston, Bill Carton beneath the Saturn V Rocket. (Photo: Brady Kenniston)

L-1: One day before Launch

I arrived at the Kennedy Space Center press site just before lunchtime, with my usual Starbucks coffee and two additional caffeinated beverages for friends. The remote-photographers were gathering next to the busses, each assigned to the bus number that was printed on our badge. Security also had us place all of our gear next to the bus, to be sniffed by a K9 unit.

The sheer number of people and gear at the press area was astounding. A movie studio was there filming and setting up sound equipment to capture the soon-to-be roar of 27 Merlin engines. Someone mentioned it was the same sound guy who worked on the move Dunkirk.

Gear by gear, the K9 unit sniffed each and every one of them, before allowing it to be loaded into the storage compartment of the bus that would be transporting us to our launch pad locations.

Gear lined up to get sniffed by k9-unit before loading the busses. (Photo: Tom Cross)

On the way, SpaceX explained the run-down. We’d be given only 20 minutes to set up at each location when we reached our designated location. During each bus stop, a timekeeper would step out of the bus and stand by the door, calling out the remaining time in 5-minute increments until the last 5 minutes remained.

I was fortunate to have been to most locations before, so I already had a mental composition of the area and prepared for a quick setup. As for the newcomers, though, the frantic pace and excitement of seeing the rocket up close for the first time, standing on sacred ground, and abruptly being snapped back to the harsh reality that only a few minutes remained before needing to leave, was certainly anxiety-inducing.

Every bus stop along the way presented itself as a photographing opportunity, as the wispy white sky and gentle clouds softly illuminated Falcon Heavy’s fairing and nose cones. The entire scene looked surreal and like a painting.

The way that the sharp points of the red Falcon logo wrapped around the fairing gave it a sense of aggression, akin to furrowed brows or a warrior’s head decoration. The rocket stood tall like an eager mixed martial arts fighter, boosters as arms and titanium grid fins like muscular shoulders. SpaceX’s process of rocket evolution had produced this beautifully designed spacecraft. As I was photographing the rocket at the pad, I sensed Falcon Heavy saying, “I’ve passed my rigorous tests and training. It’s time show the world what I can do.”

Falcon Heavy looking aggressive at the launch pad the day before launch. (Photo: Tom Cross)

Once I was back on the bus and heading to the next location, I edited photos on my laptop and posted them on our Instagram. Before I knew it, it was time to get off the bus again. I set up two cameras at the Crawlerway. One camera was a very basic wide angle with SpaceX’s horizontal integration facility in the frame, meant to serve as a purposeful headliner image. I usually opt out of this image because every organization gets one and they’re always the same, except this time.

The other camera I set was a closeup of the boosters and engines – knowing the new trend is underexposed flame photos and there would be no less than five from this launch. I chose to go a different direction and pay homage to the historic Saturn V launch pad and images. I remembered the powerful imagery of sheets of ice cracking under the sudden thrust, breaking away from the booster and vaporizing in the roaring fire that was as bright as The Sun, and I wanted to capture that. It took every bit of 15 minutes to set up these two cameras, with no time for handheld shots.

The camera setup with zoom lens to capture the boosters and engines during liftoff. (Photo: Tom Cross)

On the bus, I opened Instagram to update the story about my remote cameras and saw that Elon had liked my image of Falcon Heavy that I had just posted. An affirmation that I am photographing their rockets in the way he wants them displayed, I thought to myself. Needless to say, I was ecstatic.

Just as quickly,  it was time to get off the bus again at a new location North of the launchpad. I hadn’t been here before, so I browsed around, contemplated if I should set up my third camera here, but decided to pass on it because of the exhaust plume that would inevitably get in the way of the rocket. Instead, I took a few head-on photos of Falcon Heavy and noticed a group of people beneath it, who appeared like ants compared to the rocket. It became obvious to me this was a giant ready to crush gravity, change the industry, and rock the world. Back on the bus, I edited the photos and posted them on the way to the next location. A friend on the bus was checking Instagram and noticed them. “Dude, you’re already posting photos?” I said jokingly, “Get to work!”

The scale of Falcon Heavy. (Photo: Tom Cross)

We made our way to another new stop North of the launch pad that offered a great angle of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. The Sun would backlight the rocket during launch and create a beautiful partial silhouette, without interference from the exhaust plume. This is where I decided to set up the remaining camera that I left completely unprotected intentionally. I set this camera directly in the path of CRS-13 flame trench and the Falcon 9 exhaust blasted my camera into the ground and soaked it with suppression water – the camera and trigger were unprotected and they still work, so now I pit it up against the uncertain outcomes around the launch pads.

I updated our instagram story with the unprotected setup, then helped our West Coast photographer Pauline Acalin who had made the cross-country journey to capture history in the making, get her Miops trigger set up for her remote camera. We got it done just in time before the press bus left.

By now, all of the outside locations were completed, it was time to go inside the fence of LC-39A. We must have been the final bus because there was no time-rush and everything had a relaxed feeling. Everyone got off the bus and took time to take pictures of each other, with Falcon Heavy on the launch pad serving as a remarkable backdrop. We made some fun selfies and everyone took a moment for themselves to absorb the scenery and reflect on what we were doing. This was a once in a lifetime experience.

Thaddeus Cesari photobombs Tom Cross while taking a selfie at the launch pad. (iPhone photo: Tom Cross)

Back on the bus, I edited a group of photos and posted a series of them onto our social media accounts. As the Sun set just above the launch pad, I setup my iPhone to do a live stream on Instagram to share the experience with our fans. I saw that Elon liked the group of images I had posted just minutes earlier.

A wide angle view of LC-39A from the final bus stop. (Photo Tom Cross)

The day was coming to an end, everything was go for launch and there was an overall good vibe in the air, lots of excitement for the launch the next day. On the bus ride back, I was thinking about the struggles and triumphs and sacrifices that had led up to this launch for SpaceX and for myself. Knowing Elon was around on property after seeing his entourage buzz by more than a couple times, I thought I’d type a respectful direct message in the off-chance that he might read it. It said, “Hey Elon, Tom here, if time allows or we cross paths tomorrow, would love to shake your hand and maybe get a quick selfie with you. It’s a great privilege to cover this launch(and all the others). This is going to be mind-blowing, good luck!” As we pulled into the press site, I reread it for typos, tapped send, then unloaded the bus.

It was now about 5pm and I hadn’t eaten since 8:30am. I met my friend Chris Gebhardt who invited me to a NasaSpaceFlight meet up dinner at a restaurant called Fishlips. I ordered burger while editing photos, and a couple of people approached me, they asked me to send them some images to their email so they could show people at their work after using sick-days to see the launch. I politely declined and gave them a card where they could find the images on Teslarati. Later, I met another man from Amsterdam who was quite polite, interesting, and knew much about SpaceX and the local area, he came here with his wife. He was very excited to be here, told me about his travels, and was looking forward to the launch, I gave him a card too.

Brady arrived, we sat down at a table together to catch up, edit, and eat. Someone sat down in a vacant chair next to him and was watching him edit photos. Then he began to talk to Brady, as I zoned out to focus on my work. Brady leaned over to me and said: “Can you believe this guy just offered me $1000 trying to bribe me for my media badge so that he can get closer to watch the launch?” Brady declined, of course. It wasn’t about the compensation. It was about working for our media outlets and producing content about one man’s extraordinary vision and teams to expand human life to planets beyond our own, I thought to myself as I devoured the last bite of my burger.

Just then, Chris Gebhardt was in the process of doing giveaways for fans and one was for whoever traveled the farthest to be here. I was pleased to see the polite man from Amsterdam was the winner.

When Chris finished, we all walked out together then someone in the next room recognized him. Clearly this person had a high regard for Chris, having likely heard him during his twitter live streams and seen him on NASA TV. We each greeted the person, who began to ask Chris a few questions. Chris took the time to answer each of them completely and I saw the look on his face change. I sensed how lucky and excited he felt to have been able to personally meet Chris at this launch, and for this moment he was able to have a one-on-one with him. I tapped Brady on the shoulder and we left them alone.

That brief moment was the first time it occurred to me that we can have quite an impact on space enthusiasts by sharing information and our unique vision, sometimes it resonates with people; they really get it, look forward to it, and enjoy it.

After this encounter, Chris, Brady, and I went to a correspondents meet up hosted by Robin, Chelsea and Matt; it was a good time for networking and unwinding after the long day of launch activities. By the time we arrived, many people had already eaten pizza, had a drink in hand and offered us one when we walked in the door. I naturally searched for my drink of choice: coffee, but no coffee was to be found, so I defaulted back to water. I saw a friend, Trevor Malhmann, who I knew was at the Space Center all day but I hadn’t seen him. He told me he was photographing an interview with Elon and showed me the pictures.

Another friend, Craig then introduced me to his roommate who liked my photos, I was thrilled to meet him, and talked to him for a bit about my vision and why I’m passionate about it, then, I noticed a small crowd gathered to hear me, I lost my train of thought and diverted attention over to someone else.

I slipped outside, where I found Thaddeus sitting by the fire and spoke to him about the day and launch expectations. He gave my wife and I a postcard from his recent vacation, the postcard was from the same coffee shop JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter, a very thoughtful card, I shook his hand and thanked him. I had to leave almost as soon as I arrived, I explained that I needed to prepare for my first live interview scheduled sometime after launch. “Similar to the interview you did about the Zuma launch.” He offered some encouraging words.

I went into the house, said my goodbyes to everyone I had spoken to, thanked Chelsea and Matt for having the get together, and made my way out. I complimented Oli Braun on his super realistic rocket models.

When I arrived home at 10pm, my family excitedly wanted to hear all about my day. I told them the highlights before attending a scheduled Skype meeting to cover various talking points and rehearse for Teslarati’s live interview on Cheddar the next day. I finally went to bed around midnight but was determined to not oversleep because thousands of people would be on the roads early to get a good spot for the launch. I had to be on time. Five back-to-back alarms set five minutes apart should suffice. I kissed my wife and fell asleep.

L-0 Launch day

I got up before sunrise, made breakfast, devoured it, poured a coffee to go, kissed my wife, and hit the road. An hour into the drive, nearing the Kennedy Space Center, my GPS told me there was a 9-minute delay due to heavy traffic. I was rather early, craving another coffee, so I texted Chris “Are the chances of Falcon Heavy launching greater than the press center having coffee for us?” He laughed and said “Totally.” So I went out of the way to Starbucks.

On the way back to KSC, the traffic had seemed to clear until I crossed the drawbridge, which was bumper to bumper again. While waiting in traffic, I opened instagram and began reading messages from followers who watched the stories I made. Eventually, the entire left-lane was kept cleared by police for employees to get to work on time. I switched to that lane and drove to a badging location just outside the checkin gate that was still closed to press, so I waited in the parking lot until 10am before checking in. I called my wife, told her I had made it and that it was very busy. She was getting ready to leave to watch the launch from a friend’s house.

When I arrived to the press center, there were local news vans, trucks, each with satellite dishes pointing toward the sky. They were parked on grassy areas and embankments. Event tents were setup, lights, and cameras, anchors sat at tables reporting the events. The area was teeming with extremely talented people, all working to share this experience with the world. On roofs of buildings that are usually vacant during small satellite launches stood crowds of people illuminated by studio lighting, each was producing content about Falcon Heavy. The energy was palpable.

I walked into the press center and found that every single seat inside was reserved for someone already but there was a first-come-first-serve annex building for those who needed a desk and occasional WiFi. I passed by national news camera crews frantically unrolling thick cords and setting up gear to capture the launch – this was energizing to me, “Time to rock.”, I told them.

Inside the annex building were rows of tables like a portable classroom, each had a power strip fastened the entire length of the table. I found my West Coast colleague Pauline and Brady inside and sat down at the table with them. Pauline was working on a piece, Brady was editing images for NasaSpaceFlight, and swarms of press were punching away on their laptops. The keyboard clicking sounds filled the room.

I pulled out my laptop to edit photos, check Reddit, and read Teslarati’s coverage on the launch so far. In between reading articles I’d comment on something, checkout Brady’s photo, then, Pauline told us that her camera slipped out of her bag and landed on the front element this morning. When we met the day before, I noticed that we both have the same camera bag. My wife got me one as a Christmas gift. It is uniquely designed and I had to learn how it worked through a youtube video. I like it a lot but haven’t quite figured out where I prefer to put everything. I asked her how she packed hers and if she liked it – “Still getting used it.”, she told me. I only saw one other photographer with the same bag. Luckily, Pauline had a UV filter on the lens when it slipped out and hit the ground. The filter took all the impact and thankfully saved the front element.

Having not eaten in 4 hours or so, lunch time was coming around but buses would be loading even sooner. Brady said he was getting a snack from the vending machine and he’d bring me back something. I checked our Instagram to catch up and saw a message in the inbox, I opened it and saw a reply from Elon. Totally taken by surprise I set my phone down, looked at it and laughed, and said “holy shit.” out loud. His reply was simply “if I see you, sure.”

When Brady got back I showed him and Pauline the message and they were thrilled. Moments later, we got a call that it was time to load the bus to head out to the causeway for launch. They will leave you if you’re not there in time so we rushed out to board. We had to set our gear down to get sniffed by a k9 again. Launch was scheduled just an hour or so from this time.

While in the bus, I got out my notes out for the live interview that would be taking place after Falcon Heavy’s launch and studied the talking points. A tweet came through that the launch was being delayed – concern for upper level winds. Still, it was a beautiful day and weather prediction was a 90% go. Someone had asked to exit the bus to use the restroom due to the delay but we’d be leaving any minute so we were advised to stay on the bus.

I called my wife to tell her about the delay and mentioned the reply from Elon. She was so happy and couldn’t believe it, and was on her way to the launch. We talked a minute or two more, then hung up. Another delay tweet came through as we waited on the bus.

Everyone was hungry at this point. Missing lunch, tired from lack of sleep, I looked over at Brady and said: “Man, I sure could use a coffee now, it sounds good while waiting.” He laughed and asked, “How much coffee do you drink a day?”

“About a half gallon,” I said. “Not always caffeinated though.” He facepalmed and laughed like I was crazy. Shortly after, another delay came through, still the same upper-level wind concern – waiting it out it said.

Then a SpaceX coordinator boarded the bus and said that we’d be leaving in about a half hour, we could get off the bus, use the restroom, stretch our legs and what not. We all exited the bus, considered walking to the cafeteria wondering if we could get food and be back in time to catch the bus. All the local employees were eating lunch there so we figured the lines would be long and not worth risking. I had a package of crackers in my bag and ate those.

I visited with a couple of friends, among them was a talented aviation photographer who flies in jets, Mike Killian. I asked him if the upper-level winds could really beat the rocket around. “Definitely,” he said. “We fly above them or below them in planes, but the rocket has to punch through them, it always seems to be an issue on clear days like this.” Not anymore encouraged that the launch was a go, I boarded the bus.

The timekeeper from the day before asked “Does anyone want a sandwich?” It sounded like he was offering his personal lunch box, but no one replied. “Really?” he said. “We have all these bbq sandwiches here, come get one.” We each grabbed a sandwich like it was a piranha feeding frenzy. I figured SpaceX had arranged lunch for everyone since we had been on the bus through the lunch hour and the rocket had delayed for so long. But, then, someone on the bus pointed to Bill Jelen and mouthed “he bought them for everybody”. This random act of kindness got an applause from all of us on the bus, we were all grateful. I publicly thanked him on Facebook for others who weren’t aware.

Posted by Bill Jelen on Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Time in the launch window was nearing half-way point, we were happy to have had food, but were all pretty bummed out that the rocket may not launch. A few minutes later a tweet came through from Elon saying the rocket was getting prepared to launch at 3:45, just 15 minutes before the launch window would close. The bus started to head to the causeway, I updated Instagram, came up with a plan to do the live interview from there and sent out an email to Cheddar explaining the situation.

The Causeway, live interview

We arrived at the causeway at 3:10 pm local Eastern Time. The launch was in 35 minutes, my live interview only 10 minutes away. I had to quickly find a location with a clear view of the rocket across the water, set up my camera, laptop, and iPhone. Then SpaceX turned on their live stream with a loudspeaker for everyone to hear. Someone turned down the volume a bit for me so that myself and others could shoot video and talk. I connected to the wifi that was provided and tested the speed, minutes later received a call to join the Skype channel for the long-awaited Cheddar interview. I connected with them and was speaking to the producer, they instructed me to adjust my camera, checked my sound, and I prepared my notes.

I was photographing the rocket while waiting for them to finish with another interview, then posted some edited photos during a couple of ads that were playing. Falcon Heavy had just started to vent liquid oxygen for the first time! The ads were still rolling but coming to an end, so I picked up my camera and quickly captured some images of the LOX venting. I heard them beginning to start the segment. I immediately dropped my camera and greeted them, expecting to roll right into the talking points we prepared consisting of rocket industry competitiveness, launch costs, Tesla, and SpaceX. They started off by asking me a very simple opening question: What it looked like outside and how the weather was. I had prepared for everything but this. Having dealt with weather issues part of the day, my first thought was unpleasant, I stumbled trying to gather my thoughts and said: “We were on the edge of scrub because of windy conditions.” I avoided mentioning the 2 1/2 hours sitting on a bus not expecting the launch to occur. Instead, I mentioned the concern about dynamics of the boosters going through the crosswinds and derailed the interview and began to fumble.

The SpaceX live stream was running in the background, the speaker got louder, another puff of LOX vented, I still couldn’t gather my thoughts. I stopped, took a breath, apologized, and broke the ice by saying I was nervous. I said something along the lines of here we are – finally, the rocket is fueled and breathing, all the years of work and anticipation comes down to the next 15 minutes, the moment of truth, will this rocket actually work? will it blow up on the pad? Is this Tesla going to space? It was all taking place 6 miles away, I was captivated by it while trying to concentrate on the interview. They continued to conduct the interview, none of the talking points touched on yet but it was fine. I felt I had already gone belly-up, I’m here in this moment so let’s talk about it, I thought.

Then they asked if I was confident it would fly, I said “Absolutely, SpaceX is a talented team of artists who have done the impossible more than once, I think it’s going to be a complete success.” The interview went on a bit more and near the end, I think I was able to make two points from the notes – The competing rocket costs $400 million and carries half the payload. Falcon Heavy costs $90 million and Russia charges Nasa about $90 million for a single seat to the ISS – that’s nothing to joke about, this rocket will change the industry. They ended the interview by asking where I thought Elon Musk was. I knew exactly where he was. I said, “I think he’s in the launch and landing control facility running the show, that’s where I’d be if I were him. Interview over – Launch less than 10 minutes.

Despite the initial nerves, the communications started rolling in from my colleagues, telling me that I did great and the new segment on Cheddar in conjunction with Teslarati was a big success. The excitement is palpable. The support felt great but I quickly snapped out of it to refocus on the launch.

You can catch the entire interview on Cheddar.

5 minutes before launch, I moved my gear farther away from the SpaceX loudspeaker and started the live stream on Instagram. Hundreds of people popped into the stream, I greeted everyone, showed them the rocket on the pad, and told them how excited I am. I read a few messages; people were greeting me from China, Italy, Istanbul, I was thrilled. People all around the world were watching this incredible moment in history. I explained that I was going to leave my phone running while I took photos, they would hear my reaction and probably see it, thumbs up rolled across the screen. I got into position for launch.

t-10 seconds

I could hear the countdown on the live stream while I was standing with my eye in the camera. 5 seconds before launch a lot of exhaust billowed from the launch pad and for those 5 seconds, I held my breath as the clock ticked to 0 and I saw the orange flame creep up from beneath the rocket. I immediately held down my finger on the shutter button as the rocket ascended and cleared the tower – the whole time saying “oh my god” repeatedly when I actually wanted to blurt out a bunch of childish profanity but remembered the live stream was running.

Falcon Heavy clears the tower. (Photo Tom Cross)

As the rocket cleared the tower, I positioned my camera to capture a tall-portrait for scale. It flew higher and then it began arching over. The Earth rumbling sound from the 27 Merlin engines had traveled 6 miles across the water to my location and I could feel it in my feet and chest. With a huge smile, I put the camera away from my face to catch a glimpse with my own eyes. As the rocket pierced through clouds I photographed the roll maneuver. It was in this moment that I knew Falcon Heavy was in complete control and was in a position to go all the way.

I continued to photograph it through the Max-q, the most stressful event on the rocket’s structure as it goes supersonic. It continued to roar to space unfazed, shortly after the boosters separated. I captured images of two boosters releasing from the center core and firing up for boost-back while the single Falcon 9 core continued pushing toward space. I commented on how the rumble could still be heard.

Falcon Heavy Max-Q (Photo Tom Cross)

Falcon Heavy dual booster separation. (Photo Tom Cross)

I followed the second stage for as long as it was visible and prepared to capture the booster return. I heard it would be staggered landings what were 15 seconds apart. This would be a pretty big gap in the sky, so I had planned to shoot with another lens if needed.

We were all looking at the sky, a few minutes passed, and someone yelled “There they are!”, as the engines ignited for reentry to slow the boosters down to less than the speed of sound. The boosters were closer together than I had imagined they would be, this was really like synchronized booster landings, totally mind-blowing. I ran up a hill for a better view of the landing and I captured the boosters free falling in tandem, they pierced through a cloud and each ignited with a bright green burst of fire – The landing burn was in progress.

I held my finger on the shutter, captured the landing legs unfolding, and one after another, seconds apart, both boosters rumbled to their designated landing pad and touched down. Both had just sprinted to space, flipped around over our heads, came screaming down to Earth, slowed their freefall, and stuck perfect landings side by side. Moments after touchdown the six sonic booms rattled everything and I flipped-out cheering with everyone else who had just experienced this. I quickly uploaded the images to my laptop, edited the first few, and sent them to the team. I posted one on Twitter and Instagram, then Reddit. I packed my gear, loaded the bus and we made our way back to the press center. My wife called me to tell me how awesome it was, I was speechless.

While on the bus, I checked twitter and my photo was gaining traction. I edited a few more images and sent them to my colleague Eric Ralph for the article. I looked over to Brady and said, “That was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life.” “Me too.” he said. Then I said, “It’s going to continue because we have remote cameras to pick up yet!” He was just as excited as I was. Mike Killian, being a seasoned launch photographer said, “Don’t jinx it or get your hopes up… Not being rude, just saying from experience.” I agreed and remembered the cameras sat out overnight and the fog, dew, or any other anomalies could have caused a malfunction.

I continued editing photos and sending them out until we got to the press site, then quickly walked to the annex building to finish editing. About an hour later I walked into the main press building where people were gathered watching the live stream of Starman orbiting Earth. I watched for a few minutes hardly believing it. Everyone was then on their way to the bus for remote pickup. I walked with them and grabbed my tool box and got on the bus. Excited to see what the cameras captured, if anything, I posted an Instagram story.

Remote Camera Pickup

The first stop – the Crawlerway, I set two cameras here. I quickly ran to them, shut them down, pulled the memory cards, removed the stakes, folded up the tripods and put them into the storage compartment of the bus. I was updating Instagram to explain my Miops Triggers worked and I was getting ready to see the images.

I walked onto the bus looking at my phone screen and went to my seat to find that my stuff wasn’t there. Confused, I looked around and didn’t recognize the people on the bus. It was then that I realized that I had gotten on the second bus. I ran off, unloaded, and went to put my gear on the correct bus. The bus driver was closing the storage compartment when I came running up to load my gear. He said, “There’s still one camera out there, know who’s it is?” I said “No.” Then it occurred to me that not everyone got word the buses were leaving for remote pickup.

Sure enough, a text came through from Pauline asking me to get her camera – and a hammer she thinks she left near it. As I rode to each location I plugged in my memory cards, not knowing if they captured anything, then when the images started popping up on the screen during the upload I lit up – they are AWESOME I thought. I edited a few and sent them out to Teslarati, posted on social media.

Falcon Heavy successfully clears the tower after maiden liftoff. February 6, 2018.

Falcon Heavy booster ice peeling away and vaporizing in the fire of the engines. (Photo: Tom Cross)

At the last stop, I got off the bus to collect my third, unprotected camera. I also collected Pauline’s camera and the bus driver held up a hammer asking if anyone left it, I said, “Yep, here.” Out of hands, I shoved everything into my toolbox and the driver helped me carry a tripod to the compartment. I pulled my memory card and uploaded the images from this camera, they were incredible. I edited them and posted.

The photo that the unprotected remote camera captured. (Photo Tom Cross)

We made our way back to the press site, it was dark, mosquitos were out and were ravenous, so I ran back and forth loading the gear into my vehicle as fast as I could. I grabbed Pauline’s camera and headed up the stairs to the press center. There were officials gathered outside the entrance talking to photographers sitting at a common picnic table. They were being told to move inside.

I went inside and handed Pauline her camera, she was excited when she saw the images it captured. The room was full of people, they were leaning against the wall, and sitting on the floor glued to the live stream of Starman orbiting Earth. I walked over to visit with my colleagues who stayed at press site for the launch and shared the experience with them.

Thaddeus looked rather bummed out so I asked him “What’s up? How’d your article turn out?” He said, “It’s doing well, it’s a top story, I felt like I could have done better on it, though.” He’s a passionate space journalist and I knew exactly what he meant by that. I told him, “You give a piece of yourself for every launch article. Maybe this one is for you, keep this for yourself, and give them the next one…” He got up and gave me a bro-hug.

Some other colleagues came over to shake hands and say how awesome the launch was. Then I asked where Chris and some other people were. Thaddeus said he’s in the press center for the conference, I said, “Oh, they hadn’t done that yet? I thought they would have while we were collecting cameras.” Then it donned on me… Security outside is for Elon’s arrival.

People were by the door looking outside, some other people were outside lingering, I walked outside to use the restroom and washed my face and hands. I had been working all day, was extremely hungry, very excited from the launch, and realized this was the only time I’d cross paths with Elon. I respectfully approached a Security officer, showed him the message from Elon, and said “I know Security is tight, but I was wondering if I could shake his hand and get a selfie with him when we arrive.” The security officer read it and told me, “You should have scheduled this with the SpaceX media coordinators earlier.” As the three black SUVs rolled up and came to a stop, he told me in a firm voice “You need to go inside or go down the hill, you can’t be here right now.” I politely walked away toward the press center doors. I heard Elon’s SUV door open and I continued walking inside.

The press conference was starting and we gathered around to watch.

As Elon talked about the Tesla Roadster in space and talked about Falcon Heavy, followed by a remark that he was “tripping balls” that erupted the room with laughter. Then he answered a lot of questions around the room. Brady was standing next to me and showed me his amazing remote camera image of the underexposed flames – his signature shot. “I just tweeted it,” he said. “I’m going to pass out if Elon retweets it.” I laughed and continued watching the press conference. Elon went on about how the titanium grid fins were the only thing worth keeping from the boosters that landed, he was glad they weren’t on the center core that didn’t land, “We need those back.” he said. They didn’t even need to land these boosters I thought, they just did it to prove they could –  this is incredible. He went on about the space suit being a real qualification model, you could wear it in a vacuum chamber, and he made some comments about how funny it’d be if aliens found the car and wondered why there was a tiny car on the dashboard, a friend gave him the idea to do that.

As I watched him share with everyone this raw mix of serious and humorous experiences, I recalled reading in his biography all the struggles he’s had growing up and then becoming a businessman. I remembered reading how he invested half his money in SpaceX, the other half in Tesla, and the rest in Solarcity. He then borrowed money for rent, went through a treacherous divorce, nearly lost both companies in the economic downturn, so he had to choose to save one company and lose the other. The book said he would wake up in the night screaming sometimes during the most stressful time of his life.

Here he is now because he never gave up on his vision and he pushed himself to follow through. Through determination, intelligence, perseverance, and wit, and rolling with the punches, he was able to save both companies and sell Solarcity to Tesla. He continually beat all the odds and he’s living the best moments of his life now.

That Roadster was the beginning of Tesla, a heavy-lift rocket had been a dream of his since the beginning of SpaceX – The payload is something to everybody on Earth, at least a PR stunt. Personally, I think it’s Elon’s way of leaving a piece of himself in the Solar System, a trophy if you will, he’s freakin’ earned it. It’ll orbit The Sun for a billion years and the story will be told until our next extinction. Maybe afterward, our species will flourish again and go to space to find it out there and read the messages that were left – because it’s also a time capsule.

Back to the press conference, Chris was last up for questions, he asked 4 or 5 technical questions very quickly, Elon answered each, then the press conference concluded. Everyone came into the press building and gathered around for mission patches – a tradition after every successful launch. While gathered around, some people commented on the SpaceX live stream, showed each other their photos, talked about the press conference, then I heard Brady shocking gasp “Oh my god.”

Before anyone asked, I knew what that reaction meant. “Elon just retweeted my photo!” he said. We all high-fived him and he was pacing the room with a smile ear-to-ear. I reminded him that he said he’d pass out, and should probably sit down. He laughed and was in disbelief and beside himself excited.

Brady is a professional photographer in Michigan, shooting portraits, weddings, and sports, but he’s truly passionate about space. I know he would love to come to every launch but he invests thousands of dollars to travel and stay in a hotel, even through delays and scrubs, to photograph high profile launches and be part of the program. I was happy for him that he’d finally gotten the highest recognition for his work.

We received our patches and decided to go out to eat as a group to celebrate the launch.

We went to the usual location, a popular bar called Preachers on Cocoa Beach, the food is good and they make me fresh coffee. It’s a small bar, has extra large tables and little standing room, sometimes you sit with strangers. Chris noticed a former Space Shuttle Astronaut was sitting at the table behind us.

We all took over a table that had a couple sitting at it, when they left, we moved down to claim the entire table. I sat on one side with Chris, Pauline sat across from me and next to her was Brady with his laptop and phone out. He was editing photos and watching his Twitter stats skyrocket. He was as happy as I’d ever seen him. I don’t even think he realized food was available or felt much like eating, as he was running on adrenaline and excitement.

The server came up to us and asked what type of drinks we were having, Chris said, “I know 4-waters for sure, and you better make a pot of coffee for this guy – pointing at me, and I’ll have a beer.” I asked for 2 cups of coffee because I was going to drink one before she came back for food orders. Brady and Pauline also ordered separate drinks.

As we waited, we talked about the launch and I asked everyone when they knew it’d make it. Chris told me “When it cleared the tower.” There was a Canadian Science Channel crew filming his reaction. He warned them that he’d scream, and he said he held his breath until it cleared the tower then cheered. “I can’t wait to see their footage from that moment!” he said while laughing at himself. I told him I knew it’d make it when it performed the roll maneuver.

A couple more people came to our table who I hadn’t met at the press site. I looked over, shook hands and introduced myself to them. The person next to me said “Hey, I’m Jay Bennett, nice to meet you.” Across from him sat Josh Dinner.”Who are you with?” Jay asked. I said, “I’m a photographer for Teslarati,” he recalled hearing the name. I asked, “What about you?”  “I’m a writer and associate editor for Popular Mechanics.” Then we immediately hit it off about the launch and a range of other topics. Pauline joined on the conversation and we shared interesting stories, fun facts, photos, cool memories, etc.

The topic came up of why I’m so passionate about rocket photography. I explained that the art is the machine and the launch. The people who design it and build it and make it happen are the artists. It’s the leading edge of what humanity is capable of. Over time we discovered elements, studied them, mixed materials, created alloys, shaped them, figured out chemistry and combustion, put this inside these specially fabricated works of art that rocket engines are and figured out through multiple explosions how to finally harness the raw power of nature to go back out into the universe with the materials the universe left here on Earth for us.

I’m fascinated by the insanely high standards, methods of manufacturing, and how you need to be a certain caliber of person to work in an environment that produces these machines, have the talent to do it perfectly and consistently, nothing in the design is disregarded as not worth changing or improving, nature will beat the crap out of you if you get lazy. I am so inspired by this. So it’s about humans figuring out the unwritten rules of nature, building these rockets, and going into space, and pushing the species forward. That’s what I try to capture when I take photographs – that’s the art to me. Jay, Josh, and Pauline listened intently and didn’t say anything for a moment, I thought I lost them from rambling on. Pauline said, “A friend of mine is coming here, he was at the SpaceX party where the employees were, you need to meet him.”

We ordered food, I got a burger, and refills on my 2 coffees. While I ate everyone talked among themselves then a group of people came into the bar, one person, in particular, was rather loud. He told everyone he patted Elon on the back and told him “Good job.”, then he showed everyone this awesome photo that was posted, he held it up and said “Have you guys seen this? Check it out!” and it was Brady’s photo. Someone said, “Yeah! We’ve seen it, the photographer is sitting right there!” Eyes glued to the laptop, Brady was unaware he had an audience from this person and a couple of people who wanted to see more photos asked him and he was happy to share.

I continued eating then Pauline said, “He’s here, come meet him.” We walked over to where Chris and Thaddeus and some others were standing, she introduced me to her friend. She said he built Merlin Rocket Engines and does quality checks on them and also checks out all the boosters that go out before launch. I was blown away, thrilled to shake his hand and told him who I was. I said, “I probably have a thousand things to say and want to ask like an enthusiastic child, but I’m going to chill out.” He laughed, shrugged and said, “I’ll tell you what I can, ask away.”

Chris Gebart, Jay Bennett, Myself.

I started by telling him why I am so passionate about photographing the rockets, I showed him some of my photos from the launch, and I asked what the experience was like for him. He said, “I was so happy, I had tears running down my face the whole time! I had my hands on those boosters, I checked out those engines, I made sure it was good to go when it left the factory.” I sensed that a part of him launched with that rocket.

I continued on asking about the culture, the methods, standards, all the way to the brand of tools that are used. He politely shared what he was allowed to. He asked me where I was during the Amos-6 explosion, I said “I was sleeping and woke up to a friends text that showed the video, I thought it was fake.” He said, “We have TVs in the factory that show us the launchpads so we can stay involved in whats happening outside the walls, someone yelled “What the fuck?!” as we watched it explode. I asked if anyone left work early distraught after that. “Hell no.” he said. “We have production to meet.”

He continued to tell Pauline and I how there are things he’s refused that didn’t pass quality inspection and he’s had to tell Elon ‘no’ before and explain why. He said, “Elon is always around, although he doesn’t announce it, he sometimes walks to your station and observes you working, he likes to watch you in your natural work environment. If he asks you something and you say no, or give an opinion on something, you’d better have your shit together to back it up. I’ve seen him rip people apart with a series of questions. He’ll take what you think you know, and not only go outside the box with it, he’ll go out of the building with it and you’ll be left dumbfounded about how it’s directly related to what you’re doing. He’s whip-smart.” I asked, “Do people think does he does this to be an asshole? He said, “No. We’re on the same team with the same focus, we are a small company, he needs to be this way.”

He told me engineers, fabricators, and assemblers really do work together. When an issue is discovered, its redesigned, made right, and installed, each of these issues can be expensive so they handle them fast and get it right. They have work orders to complete when building engines and such. I was absolutely captivated by this basic insight into the world of rocket manufacturing, this was an artist telling me about the studio, the creative processes, and I see and photograph the finished works.  I was running on fumes by this time, hardly able to listen attentively or make any sense so I said it was a pleasure to meet him and I said goodbye.

I went around to everyone I spoke to that night and got selfies with them to remember the historic launch, the energy in the room was amazing and didn’t want to forget these moments. I ran into Tim Dodd (Everyday Astronaut) and finally had a moment to chat with him before I left. We walked over to the side of the room and caught up. He mentioned my photos are really killing’ it lately, since he’s seeing them everywhere. That was nice to hear. I told him I love what I’m doing.

Josh Dinner, Myself, Thaddeus Cesari

I showed him the article we wrote about his video of where to watch the launch from. I also showed him that a teacher asked me what would be the best for her 266 students to learn about space, I linked his videos to her. He was stoked and said, “Can you believe a congressman told me they watch my videos to stay up to snuff?” I said, “Wow, that’s huge! They’re great, I’m not surprised!”

He then recalled us meeting a year earlier at a meet up he had at a small bar on Cocoa Beach before he became popular from Youtube. The only people who went to his meetup at the time were Brady and I. I had been photographing launches 6 months prior to meeting him that night. He was a press photographer and Brady and I had tickets for the Saturn V viewing. At the meet up I showed him some of my photos and he was blown away by most of them. Brady had some amazing shots too. He asked, “Why aren’t you guys shooting for someone?” Brady already had something lined up. I said, “I hadn’t thought mine were up to par yet.” Tim called BS on that and encouraged me to reach out. So I did, and my rocket photography press-journey began.

Now a year later, here we were, at another meet up in a bar on Cocoa Beach. Both of us have worked all year producing content and struggled to find our niche and perfect our talents to create something that resonates with the public, and celebrating the biggest launch this generation had ever seen. I got a selfie with him and said ’til next time, then left Preachers.

Myself, Tim Dodd, Robin Seemangal

I drove home hardly keeping my eyes open but the happiest I could be. I had been involved in this extraordinary launch that changed the world and the space industry. I was able to tell a story through photographs that resonated with so many people.

The launch was a huge success, there’s a freakin’ Tesla in space now forevermore, and I worked with the most talented, interesting, passionate people and made everlasting friendships. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my wife all about it.

A few days after launch, everyone I talked to said they were still high from it. I took an extra day or two to catch up on work and to absorb the events that took place, then started to take my time editing my photos for prints. People were messaging me about where to buy prints, so I created a website to share some of my work to others that wanted a moment in history on their walls.

I felt we had all captured great photos of the launch but the one image that captured the essence of Falcon Heavy is the last one Elon posted. – Starman wearing a SpaceX spacesuit, cruising in a Tesla Roadster out to deep space, with a crescent Earth in the rearview mirror.

Now let’s talk about how it got there.

Starman gives one final farewell to Earth as he departs for deep space aboard Musk’s Tesla Roadster. (SpaceX)



Reliving SpaceX Falcon Heavy: A press photographer’s memoir, not so much a blog post

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