- Northrop Grumman launched a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station at 9:16 p.m. ET on October 2.
- An enterprising photographer from Philadelphia managed to record the 14-story rocket flying in front of a nearly full moon.
- Professional launch photographers believe it’s one of the first such moon-transiting rocket-launch photos in two decades.
Minutes before liftoff of a NASA rocket mission on October 2, Steve Rice realized he was in the wrong place for a photographic fantasy he’d waited years to make real.
Rice, a 33-year-old Texas native who calls Philadelphia home, had documented about half a dozen space launches up-close. But to challenge himself and record a unique perspective of spaceflight, Rice committed to, one day, taking photos and video of a rocket flying in front of the moon.
“It’s been in my mind for a long time as a fantasy, because — living up here — I don’t get too many launches” near home, Rice told Business Insider. “One of my favorite things to shoot is the space station transiting the moon or the sun through my telescope. So the thought of the rocket going across the moon has been on my mind. But I never thought there’d be an opportunity to do that.”
Yet Rice saw his chance when Northrop Grumman announced it’d fly the Cygnus NG-14 cargo resupply spaceship, dubbed the “S.S. Kalpana Chawla,” from NASA’s launch facility at Wallops Island, Virginia, a three-and-a-half-hour drive away. The mission was to fly 5,000 pounds of air, food, water, spacesuit parts, and scientific experiments — including a $23 million titanium space-toilet prototype — to the International Space Station.
Photographing anything fast flying past the moon requires a combination of luck, planning, and skill, due to the heavenly body’s small relative size (roughly that of a thumbnail on an outstretched arm) and constant motion. Doing so with rockets require an excess of all three virtues, though, due to additional challenges of geography, weather, curved flight paths, and fickleness.
In September, for example, nearly all orbital-class launch attempts from US soil were scrubbed. The Cygnus spacecraft launch on an Antares rocket was no different: Eighteen seconds before planned liftoff on October 1, the mission was postponed due to a ground control equipment problem, NASA said.
Rice had driven out for that attempt, losing most of a day and a lot of gas money in the process. He said he wasn’t sure he’d try again for the next attempt, the following day at 9:18 p.m. ET.
“My brother and his girlfriend were visiting from Atlanta for the week, and I’m the crazy guy who wants to abandon them at night, and go drive three hours down to maybe see a launch,” Rice said.
But he got in the car.
He was too committed to the idea, having studied weather forecasts, researched shooting alignments and settings with specialized apps (like Photographer’s Ephemeris and Flight Club), and pored over maps to stake out the perfect spot: the shoulder of a road near a corn field 3.4 miles from NASA’s launch pad. From there, he calculated, the moon would be rising above the eastern horizon, to align perfectly with the rocket’s path to orbit about 22 seconds after liftoff.
With “a big stroke of luck,” he said, he could fit the rocket’s 139-foot-tall frame inside a barely waned full moon.
With just 16 minutes left in the countdown, though, Rice triple-checked his location — and found himself setting up his gear thousands of feet from where he was supposed to be.
“I used a map to count telephone poles from intersections, since there weren’t any other discernible details,” he said. “But at night, it was difficult to find the right spot, and I was set up at the wrong near the wrong telephone pole … I had to throw everything back into the car and drive down the road to the right spot and get set up again.”
He pulled off the road near the correct telephone pole, then put up a tripod and camera with a 300-millimeter telephoto lens he’d bought on Ebay for $20. Ten feet away, he erected another tripod with a camera, this one with a small telescope attached to it, hit the video-record button, and jogged back to his still camera.
Shortly after seeing the light of the launch, he held down the camera’s shutter — what he called the “spray and pray” method — in hopes of getting some frames of the rocket’s journey toward space. Moments later, the machine thundered across the moon, right where it was supposed to be.
Watch a 14-story rocket journey across the moon
The nine images Rice shared on Instagram, embedded above with his permission, show the full, stunning sequence of pictures.
“This was the only time I’ve actually shouted after getting the shot,” Rice said, including some “undisclosed” curse words. “I was out alone on the side of a road next to harvested cornfield.”
But Rice said the video he recorded, uploaded to YouTube and embedded below with his permission, made him even more giddy than the still photos.
The footage, shot in 4K ultra-high resolution, shows the explosive shockwaves of two fuel-devouring Russian rocket engines emanating into the air around the rocket. Following it, the engine’s exhaust disturbs the moon’s light into a chaos of schlieren — when variations in the density of a gas or liquid cause light to refract and bend.
“It’s like a mirage,” Rice said.
Rice said it was “a big stroke of luck” that he managed to record the scene with both photos and video.
“It’s amazing how accurate and more or less lucky you have to be to make sure the alignment is right,” he said.
As an example, he said, a photographer stationed a mile closer to the pad didn’t manage to pull it off. Rice also noted that the mission had a five-minute window to launch. If mission controllers had delayed the liftoff to the end of that window, he would have been 250 feet away from where he was supposed to be — not a lot of time to move and precisely set up a bunch of gear alone.
After Rice posted the photos to Instagram, he saw a tide of congratulations.
One came from Carleton Bailie, a launch photographer of many decades, who said it took 20 years for someone “to get one” rocket-and-moon shot like it. Bailie added that the last time was likely in 2000, when he took a similar photo during the launch of an Atlas rocket.
Ben Cooper, SpaceX’s go-to launch photographer, also chimed in.
“Great job! It’s been a long time since someone got it,” Cooper wrote, confirming that the photos are likely the first of their kind in a couple decades, adding: “I keep pretty good track of photos and have been doing so for 20 years now.”