What It's Like to Photograph the Most Powerful Rocket in the World

A 15 second long exposure of Falcon Heavy's launch. Photograph by Bob O'Connor
A 15 second long exposure of Falcon Heavy's launch. Photograph by Bob O'Connor
SpaceX Falcon Heavy Demo flight from Kennedy Space Center SLC-39A in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Feb. 6, 2018. Photograph by Bob O'Connor
The Falcon Heavy is comprised of 3 boosters and 27 total engines. Photograph by Bob O'Connor
The view once Falcon Heavy lifted off. Photograph by Bob O'Connor
Flames from the rocket are seen high in the sky. Photograph by Bob O'Connor
Smoke and tail end flames are seen through the heat left from the rocket. Photograph by Bob O'Connor
The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operating rocket in the world. Photograph by Bob O'Connor
Water vapor is seen on the booster as the Falcon Heavy begins to take off. Photograph by Bob O'Connor
Leftover smoke from Falcon Heavy's successful launch. Photograph by Bob O'Connor

On Tuesday Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon Heavy, considered to be the most powerful rocket in operation in the world, from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Photographer Bob O’Connor was one of about 450 members of the press who documented the historic event. He began photographing the private company’s launches when SpaceX was trying, but failing, to land its reusable rockets. (It has since succeeded a multitude of times. On Tuesday, SpaceX successfully landed two of the three “cores” of the Falcon Heavy after detaching from its upper stage. The third failed to relight all of its engines and crashed.)

“I really didn’t want to miss this one,” O’Connor tells Fortune. “I was there because of fear of missing out.”

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The day before liftoff, and with only minutes to set up, O’Connor positioned five cameras in various places around the Kennedy facility.

“The event really only lasts 45 seconds for good photography,” he says. “After that, things are too high in the sky.”

His planning was meticulous. He mulled composition and exposure beforehand to reduce time spent fiddling with his equipment. Sound-activated cameras helped O’Connor correctly time his capturing of the launch. The photographer arranged his gear just 1,200 feet from the rocket on the launch pad—a risky move given the extreme vibrations that come from the base of one of the most powerful rockets ever developed.

“Cameras get a lot of abuse from the power of the rocket,” he said, “so I’m surprised how sharp [the images] came out.”

All five of O’Connor’s cameras were successful in capturing the event. The photographer even managed to capture an image with a daring 15-second exposure—something he had been wanting to make for some time, but was limited by the tight time allowed during the launch and low frequency of launches during the year.

It’s all about experimenting with approaches, O’Connor says, but still covering your bases. “Even when you plan, there’s still such a risk of failure,” he says. “But if you take the gamble, it’ll sometimes pay off.”

During the launch, O’Connor stood three miles away from the launch pad, in the so-called safety zone. Still, when the rocket lifted off he could feel it through his body.

“It was definitely louder than the single rockets they’ve launched before,” he says. “The disconnect between the sound reaching you and what you’re seeing before your eyes is a weird thing.”

O’Connor has a background in architecture, and he is intrigued by the visual relationship between the built environment and spacecraft.

“The infrastructure part of this is just as interesting to me as the science of this,” he says. “The rocket is way bigger than it looks, but it’s hard to fully convey that in launch photos which is why the sense of scale is an ongoing problem I’m trying to solve.”

Check out the gallery above to see O’Connor’s photographs of the launch.

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