SpaceX was scheduled to launch their 9th contracted Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station and land the first stage of the Falcon 9 back in Cape Canaveral, Florida, so my friend Craig and I went to photograph it!

The journey began about three weeks before launch, applying for media credentials and trying to gather as many cameras as I possibly could to bring to the launch because I knew it was going to be historic.

Please note: All photography in this blog is my own (unless otherwise noted) and is available in the creative commons domain, feel free to download and use for your own purposes (non-commercial, without permission) and if shared on social media – correct attribution is required.

A friend of mine, Craig Vander Galien (a great follow on Instagram for sweet pictures), was also hoping to photograph the launch – and indeed received credentials through SpaceNews. He offered to give me a ride to the launch, and of course, I said yes! – more on that later.

Let's do this🚀 @SpaceX #CRS9 launch to @ISS Monday 12:45am EDT #SpaceX

A post shared by Trevor Mahlmann (@tmahlmann) on

After applying for media credentials and getting confirmation for them, I rented a few cameras, tripods, and lenses from ATSRentals.com, utilizing one of their frequently-run sales.

I thought about renting fewer cameras and going for better quality, full-frame cameras (like 2, 5D MKIII for low light performance) due to it being a midnight launch, but ended up renting the following gear for more angles:

Along with all my own personal gear.

The day before I departed, I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow a long lens from my good friend, David Wegiel.

After a quick trip to Lafayette for lunch, a Dwayne Purvis burger from Triple XXX, I was on my way back home – with the precious 400mm safely seated.

I will forever be in debt to him for that because of the photos I was able to capture.

The trip began early in the morning (around 1 AM) on July 16th, 2016 when Craig picked me up in his Tesla Model S, 85D. We packed the car quickly, plugged in our destination – Cape Canaveral, Florida – and got on our way!

Our first stop to supercharge was in Lafayette, Indiana.

Supercharger – Lafayette, Indiana

After taking a few photos, this was my first chance to get a look at some of the Teslas features. I have only ever seen videos online; I had never sat in a Tesla before.

What amazed me right off the bat was the simplicity and attention to detail throughout the car.

and this thing – the 17 inch touch screen which you use to interface with the car.

From Navigation, to energy usage, internet, and even climate control – all done via touch-screen. Plus, an always available wide-angle backup camera – so you can see that jag tailgating you in crystal clear high definition!

This was also the first time I got to drive a Tesla. Craig offered to let me drive and off we went to Louisville.

Tesla Superchargers are currently placed at distances where you can make each one easily, with a relatively short amount of charging time. While perusing the features of the car in Lafayette, we gained enough charge to skip over the Indianapolis Supercharger and head straight for Louis – this would go on to happen a few more times.

Superchargers are also placed very near major highway exits for ease in locating them and timeliness of getting back on the road.

We arrived in Louisville and ate breakfast during the charge, and were back on our way.

Our next stop was to be in Bowling Green, Kentucky. This leg was where I really started to notice how much Autopilot was eating up the miles.

Autopilot is Tesla’s beta autonomous driving technology.

“This is not beta software in any normal sense of the word. Every release goes through extensive internal validation before it reaches any customers. It is called beta in order to decrease complacency and indicate that it will continue to improve.” –Elon Musk

Lots of our driving through southern Indiana and Kentucky was through construction zones, and even then, Autopilot worked great. Though there were a few times where I needed to take over control of the vehicle from Lafayette until now (apart from on/off ramps and local road driving to Superchargers) our trip so far was completed entirely on Autopilot.

Autopilot works best when the lines are clearly painted on the road – the only times it required you to take over control was when lines aren’t clear and the Tesla is unsure where the road is and with very sharp turns. With clearly painted lines on the road, the vehicle passes with flying colors.

Our next stop after Bowling Green was just south of Nashville, Tennessee.

Here, we got to see a brand new Tesla Model X, a car I also had never seen in person or sat in before, in all its Bioweapon Defense Mode and Falcon Wing Door glory. 😎 It was a thing of beauty, to say the least to finally see one in the flesh,

The Tesla dealership staff is always very kind and accommodating – especially so at this stop. Not many stops were both chargers & dealerships, so it was really cool to see so many Teslas in one place.

Back on the road and Craig took the wheel.

Next stop Chattanooga, Tennessee: where we met two other Tesla owners one P85D (with the beautiful 21″ Turbine Wheels)  and another, who had just come from picking up his Model X – too cool.

Not complaining at all when I say this, we probably delayed our arrival in Florida by two hours or more by chatting with owners we met at each of our stops – really nice to meet them and talk.

Quick charge/chat, let’s go!

During our next leg, we watched Progress launch to the ISS live.

Pretty neat to see a resupply ship launch while en-route to a resupply launch ourselves. The SpaceX Dragon would go on to dance with the Progress in orbit, arriving only a few days later with around 5,000 lbs (~2 metric tons) of food, water, and science to the astronauts living in space.

We also saw some pretty cool rainbows after a quick rain shower outside of Atlanta.

We arrived in Atlanta and here’s another really cool feature of the car, you press the button on the supercharger plug, and the charging bay door opens automatically – it does the opposite when you’re finished (without a button press) so you never forget to close your charging door.

On our next leg was going to be our longest yet – 184mi to be exact.

After plugging in, we had a Which Wich sandwich – which I never had before, which I enjoyed very much.

Came back to a nearly full charge and were on our way to Tifton, Georgia.

Not much to see there, so we charged quickly and were off to Lake City, Florida.

Our first sight of palm trees and also the infamous Florida humidity (as you can see in this picture around the street lights)

Some say stopping to charge is a large inconvenience – but it really isn’t. You stop a bit more than someone with a regular gasoline car does to fill up but driving for over 20 hours in total, it’s nice to get out and stretch a little.

Our next leg would be the longest of our whole journey. Lake City, FL to Cape Canaveral, our final destination, ~200 miles.

So we suction cupped the GoPro outside for some long exposures:

and just after 3 AM on Sunday, July 17th, 2016 (Launch minus 21.5 hours) – we arrived at our hotel.

Sleeping in until the late morning after a long drive, woke up to a pretty awesome message:

I really enjoyed sharing the ride.

Later that day after lunch at IHOP – we headed over to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to get our badges and prepare for launch.

While on the NASA Causeway, we were stopped by the drawbridge and it made for a pretty cool photo op.

We quickly got our cameras together at the press-site and were off to remote setup on the NASA buses, bound for Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40.

On the way to the launch pad, we saw NASA’s SLS launch tower, 

and SpaceX’s pad 39-A (where Neil, Buzz, and Michael launched to the Moon in 1969)

 

At SLC-40 and UCS-3, we quickly set up our cameras and have Scott Murray to thank for this photo of me getting them ready!

Boiler up!! Crazy to think that as a college student, I can get these kinds of opportunities. Very thankful for it.

I setup two cameras on the launch pad and at UCS-3, a little under a mile away from the launch pad, I set up two more cameras.

This shows the basic setup launch photographers use.

  • Hefty tripod
  • stakes to hold the legs down
  • hand warmers or other dew heater device for night launches to keep warm
  • and of course, a camera and lens

This camera pictured above unfortunately didn’t fire..

It was setup for a wonderful shot with a Nikon D7200 and a Sigma 50-500 at around 200mm looking directly south at the launch pad and I really would have loved to see those photos, but that’s what happens when you try and fiddle with using a Nikon last minute as a Canon shooter trying to find the interval timer and don’t enable it correctly.

I could have been much more proactive by experimenting with the camera on the 20hr trip down, but a good lesson learned and one to think about for next time.

I will for sure come more prepared – you learn as you go, and the most important thing is fixing your mistakes you made previously and learning new ones not to make the next time!

Another view on our way back to the press-site after setting up our cameras of the historic launch pad, 39A. So cool to be so close to where Man launched to the Moon.

Soon, SpaceX will conduct both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy flights from this launch pad, and I cannot wait to come back for those. Excited just thinking about it.

I planned ahead and set aside one memory card which I used as a “dummy” card. After setting up each camera, I would stick the dummy in for one photo, to be shared in a small pre-launch gallery.

In the rush of setting up cameras, left the dummy card in the 2nd camera at the pad. But after shooting sports as long as I have, all was not lost. I transferred a few RAWs over Wifi to my phone as a backup,. It’s all about the lessons learned.

Now, we waited a few hours until we were scheduled to depart.

This is when I got to editing that one photo I transferred over 🙂


9; CRS; Falcon; Falcon 9; Launch; Rocket; Space; SpaceX; dragon

Not many things show the true scale of how big rockets are, this does it nicely.

Earlier that day, I got an email saying I was approved for the media deck viewing of the launch/landing at Exploration Tower, which I was initially ecstatic about. After getting to the press site after remote setup, I got to talking with Scott Murray about where I should go for launch. NASA Causeway or Exploration Tower.

Scott convinced me to go to the NASA Causeway because of how close we were going to be to both the launch, and the landing.Scott is one of my best friends down there at the Cape and I am so glad he did, and am very thankful to him for helping me make that decision because it paid off.

After a few hours at the NASA Media center, we boarded the buses for the NASA Causeway.

Thought of this shot last minute after being inspired by Bill Ingalls’ recent work at the Soyuz launch, so I set this shot up with my friends Scott, Craig, and Matthew in it, hoping to capture launch – but alas, it didn’t fire on time either. Proper Planning  Prevents Piss Poor Performance – lesson learned.

I set up my streak shot with my Canon Rebel and 8mm fisheye I was using, and the lens was beginning to fog over with dew, so I slipped a pair of hand warmers inside the lens hood to warm it up (this was T-45min). I thought, I’ll remember to take it out.

We were stationed here for the launch on the NASA Causeway.
4 miles from the launch pad and 4.7 miles away from the landing pad.

5…4…3…2…1

Launch.

Falcon 9 with Dragon, on its way to the ISS.

Canon 60D | Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM | 17mm | 1/800 | f/8 | ISO 200

Canon 7D MKII | Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L II USM 1/320 | f/5.6 | ISO 200

 

 

 My favorite shot! Here is the Falcon 9 just seconds after liftoff before it delivered the Dragon capsule with 5,000 lbs of supplies to Earth orbit. @CanonUSA #EOS #60D #Canon #EF 70-200mm f/4L USM 184mm | 1/640 | f/8 | ISO 200

Canon 60D | Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM 184mm | 1/640 | f/8 | ISO 200

The mighty Falcon’s tail.

Canon 60D | Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM 184mm | 1/640 | f/8 | ISO 200

The photos were looking great. I took only a few launch photos with the 400, and watched the rest of the launch.

When I came for my first ever launch, (CRS-4 via NASA Social) I learned the lesson after not to watch the launch through a lens or a phone screen – which I did during that launch. You have to feel the launch and watch it go up unaided to the eye – it’s amazing.

I checked my launch long exposure to see how it looked. Yep – forgot to remove the hand warmers 🙂 Lesson learned. Could still see the Falcon 9 punching through the clouds, so at least my settings were good!

Now to prepare for the landing.

The reentry burn was about to begin, so I made sure my landing long exposure was set. In doing so, I also thought, hey – the Falcon 9 will only be using one engine for the landing burn – I need to adjust my settings with the 7D II and 400mm.

I was going to be getting about 1/9th the light, and did some napkin math in my head for new settings.

My launch settings were:

1/320 | f/5.6 | ISO 200 with the 400 and 7D II.

I decided to open up the aperture to:

f/2.8 (risky if I miss my focus, but I needed to let in everything to get it clearly)

I knew it was going to be coming down fast and trying to track it was going to be tough, so my shutter speed went up to:

1/400 to prevent motion blur,

and my ISO, I gave a slight boost from 200 to 320. So effectively I was getting a better exposure and going to capture motion a bit better, still a bit under-exposed – but good to know for next time.

What I picked worked splendidly.

There was this tower with red lights blinking every few seconds right near the landing pad (illuminated in white, to the left)

I manually focused on the red lights and waited for the reentry burn to begin.

“Staaaage 1…reentry burn has started.”

There it was. Falcon 9 was coming home. The second to last burn was underway. We could see it coming to be what looked like straight down, but I think that was just the perspective.

“Staage 1..reentry burn shut down.”

I remembered the sonic booms that were coming. I quickly got together my phone mount and threw down my iPhone on my Gorillapod to capture it. Boy am I glad I did.

Craig and I were looking up, after the reentry burn completed you could definitely see the rear end of F9 S1 glowing red hot as it reentered. We could see it almost all the way down to where the landing burn started where that glow seemed to fade because of the cloud cover.

I, for about 5 seconds realized what I was about to witness – wondering & hoping it was going to land successfully. Both for the pictures I was wanting to make, and SpaceX’s sake for advancing the future of launching us off this Earth more cheaply – I was, for a moment – taken aback.

“Stage 1 landing burn has started.”

Here we go.

My first frame I captured of the landing.

In this, (and several other frames I captured) you can see the effects of retropropulsion in work. The vehicle at this time had just gone through the trans-sonic region (crossing from going faster than to slower than the speed of sound) and was decelerating very quickly (about 2G’s or twice the normal force of gravity here on Earth, would be felt if you were on-board F9 stage 1 here)

This next frame shows the effect very clearly.

I was also able to capture the thrust vectoring in action as the vehicle stabilized itself for a precise landing at LZ-1, captured in these next two frames:

see the GIFs at the end for a better example of this

What came next was leg deploy, and landing. You can hear me in the video audibly, ” I GOT THE LEGS!!!!” then Craig responds: “ATTA BOY!!” 🙂

Here are those exciting frames.

*POP*

Out they come.

Up until this frame above, the legs came out symmetrically. If you look closely, the right-hand leg (from my view) has a little bit more of the way to fully deploy and lock.

There is goes. Legs are down and locked.

From here, she disappeared below the treeline. The following frames were all shot at the same white balance and you’ll notice a beautiful orange glow develop.

Changing from a white light (the light reflecting off the concrete pad, illuminating the entire stage) to an orange-ish yellow, this glow is caused by the flames from the center engine being dispersed outward upon hitting the concrete landing pad.

You can also see the exhaust begin to come upward after being thrust at the concrete pad.

Touchdown, and engine cutoff.

“LZ-1, the Falcon has landed, landing operators move into procedure 11 dot 100 on recovery and LZ-1 A-net”

They did it, again.

All together, now.

I worked very hard (spread over several days) on these and aligned each photo by hand in Adobe Lightroom, so if you choose to share them, please read this post and attribute them correctly.

 

 

 

 

 

SpaceX Falcon 9 landing (1.7x speed)

SpaceX Falcon 9 landing (1x speed / real-time)

Here is a video I sequenced with the images aligned by hand, laid over the top with the sound of each shutter actuation in real time.

The video was taken with an iPhone 6s+ in 4K, if you would really like to experience the sonic booms, use a pair of headphones😎

I sort-of sincerely apologize for my loud “WOOO!!” (which I muted for the most part); Only sort-of because it was raw excitement for what I had just witnessed, hard to tame that.

 

Pisgah National Forest

 

On our way home, we stopped in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. Here are a few of my favorites!

Sunset taken with my Phantom 4

 No more watermarks. Inspired by well-known photographer @TreyRatcliff, I have decided to release all my photos in the Creative Commons domain to inspire sharing of all kinds and will no longer be watermarking my images either.I have pursued picture taking for nearly 2 years and this is really just the start of my journey, even if its just a professional hobby for the rest of my life. I sincerely enjoy when people ask to share/repost my work, are inspired by mine to create their own (either from mine or totally separate), and want to open the door to more of those opportunities. I wrote a story on my webiste that you can read via the link in my bio if you want to learn more. But basically, feel free to download my photos from my website (photos.tmahlmann.com), use them whatever you like (wallpapers, blogs, stories, etc), feel free to edit/remix/photoshop/posterize/paint/etc any of them; if you repost/share it on social media note when you have made changes to it, and last but not least, tag/@ mention/link to my website! That

Sunset Blues

Moonrise at Sunset

Belt of Venus and Earth’s shadow visible from the top of Mt. Pisgah

A lot of “Thank You’s” are in order for this experience coming together like it did:

  • David Wegiel – for allowing me to use his 400mm 2.8 for the landing photos, nothing like it would have been possible on a college student budget. You really have to trust someone to let them borrow your kit.
  • Tim Dodd (aka Everyday Astronaut), NASA, and the r/SpaceX moderators – for allowing me the opportunity to attend this launch as a credentialed photographer.
  • Craig Vander Galien – For being the coolest of dudes to travel with. To his family for allowing us to take the Tesla and his parents – who paid for our lodging on the trip.

and you, for reading through to the end of my post, it means a lot to me to have your interest for as long as this post is.

What’s next on this blog?

I took some very exciting aerial shots of the Purdue University campus on a recent visit, and will be posting them for download as wallpapers!

Stay tuned for that on Monday!

As always, if you have questions feel free to shoot me a tweet/comment/message on social media, or contact me via this form, below!

All photos in this blog are taken by me (unless otherwise noted), and are available in the Creative Commons domain on my website. If you would like to use as a wallpaper, in a story online, or for your Facebook page, you may! But you must attribute it to me. Please read this post before sharing – thank you!

Hi-res downloads are available by clicking on any of the photos you would like in this post and using the download arrow “↓” provided in the lower corner.

If you would like to support trips like this and my continued works, you can do help me by supporting me on Patreon! Thank you very much.

I am a full-time professional photographer. If you would like to help make more photos like this possible, join my community and support me here on Patreon!