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Photographing The First Falcon Heavy Launch

I had the opportunity to experience the first launch of the Falcon Heavy by SpaceX. I’ve been a space fan since I watched the Apollo missions to the moon on a black and white television back in the 1960s. The first steps of Neil Armstrong on the moon are still fondly remembered in my mind, even after all these years. I was lucky enough to be able to travel and be present for two launches of the shuttle before the program ended, including the final launch of Atlantis on July 8, 2011. Neither of the shuttle launches I attended was actually witnessed from Kennedy Space Center. The first shuttle launch I witnessed was from the beach in Cocoa Beach, Florida. It was an early morning launch before dawn, and it was impressive. The sky was clear and you could see the three main engines burning long after solid booster separation. The flight of Atlantis in 2011 was impressive as well, but the shuttle was only in view for a short time due to cloud cover. That launch was viewed from the causeway leading into Cocoa Beach. It’s a popular spot to view launches.

Nothing I had seen before prepared me for the incredible sights and sounds of viewing the Falcon Heavy rocket’s first launch on February 6, 2018. I had set up an alert to prompt me as soon as launch tickets went on sale for the launch. I was lucky enough to get one of the limited tickets to view the launch from the Saturn V Center on the Kennedy Space Center. It was billed as one of the closest sites to view the launch from.

I could barely sleep the night before the launch. I was up by 4 am preparing my camera gear (like I hadn’t already checked it like a zillion times already). I was on the road to the Kennedy Space Center by 6 am. It was still dark and the launch wasn’t scheduled until after lunch. I figured I could get there early and shoot some of the sites around KSC before boarding a bus to the launch viewing area. If you’ve never been to Kennedy Space Center it’s amazing. After waiting in line to board the bus, we toured the space center on the way to the viewing area. We went past the huge Vehicle Assembly Building where the rockets are mated with their payloads. We went to see the landing facility where the shuttles that returned to Florida landed after their trips to space. Then we arrived at the Saturn V Complex.

The Saturn V Complex is huge. It has to be because there is a full Saturn V rocket suspended from the ceiling. My first task was to find a seat where nothing would obstruct my view of the launch. SpaceX and NASA were great hosts for the crowds. Lunch was served as part of the package, and SpaceX provided ball caps and champagne glass for the toast after launch. Once I found a place next to the fence where my view wasn’t obstructed, I settled in to wait. And it was a long wait. The launch was scheduled for 1:45 pm EST but it was 3:45 PM when the launch occurred. We had been told the launch window closed at 4 pm, so everyone was getting nervous that we would have to return the following day to view the launch. Luckily the high altitude winds that had delayed the launch slowed to within launch parameters to allow the launch to proceed.

If you’ve never seen a rocket launch from this close I would recommend you put it on your bucket list. As the countdown reached the final seconds and main engines start of Falcon Heavy there is a huge cloud of steam from the water released below the rocket to dampen the acoustic vibrations from the engines. This is seen in the photo above which is the first photo in the series below.

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You see the rocket engine ignite and the rocket begins to lift off from the pad before the sound reaches you. Looking across the water I could see the acoustic wave approaching. There had been an announcement to stay away from the windows in the building because no one knew if the sound of the rocket would shatter them or not, since this was the first time for launching the Falcon Heavy. When the sound hit it was unbelievable. I could feel it in my chest and it literally shook my whole body. It was at this point I was wondering if opting to handhold my camera was such a good idea due to the vibrations. But it was too late now! All I could do was keep shooting and trust my settings.

At this point, the sound was still amazing and the view of the rocket lifting off and gaining speed was simply breathtaking. I knew they had advised us to sit back and watch and enjoy the spectacle, but I was glued to the viewfinder of my camera and the view at 760mm zoom. One of my last shots was of the outer cores as they separated and started their journey back to the landing pads. The altitude is approximately 50 miles. Not sure how far downrange, but as you can see the outer cores are visible as they separate. This is the beginning of the maneuver to slow them for the return to the landing site.

I had to change position to get a line of sight to the landing area for the two cores. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get photos of the cores landing, but I was able to see the cores land right on target. Just as the landing burns began a tall gentleman walked right into my field of view, so I missed the booster ignition and couldn’t get them back in the field of view before landing because they were moving so fast. It was at this point that the twin sonic booms arrived in rapid succession. Boom-Boom, quickly followed by Boom-Boom.

This was an amazing trip and I highly recommend attending a launch if you have the opportunity to visit the Space Coast and Kennedy Space Center.

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