MAHIA PENINSULA, New Zealand—Not a blade of grass longer than the rest, a red “Remove Before Flight” tag unchecked, or a single Kiwi (be it bird or engineer) out of place: Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex-1 looks like an industry brochure come to life (better in fact). Located at the southern tip of the picturesque Mahia Peninsula on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, LC-1 is currently the only operational Rocket Lab launch site where the Electron vehicle—Rocket Lab’s low-cost small satellite launch vehicle—takes flight.
Rocket Lab just took advantage of the latest window at LC-1 on August 19. But back in December 2018, fellow rocket launch photographer Brady Kenniston had the exclusive opportunity to photograph Rocket Lab’s first NASA mission, ElaNa-19, from this private launch site. This launch was going to be Rocket Lab’s most important mission to date because, as the leader in the small satellite industry, they had an opportunity to show NASA (and the world) what they are made of. If successful, it could lead to future business from other small satellites in need of a ride to space—not to mention, the company would earn the endorsement of NASA Launch Services as an eligible vehicle to fly future NASA small-satellite science payloads.
Luckily, Brady graciously invited me to join along for this trip of a lifetime. And I had my camera and notebook in tow.
How do you get to the end of the world?
How do you get to remote rocket launch paradise? Planes, trains, and automobiles, of course!
Brady and I began the trip to New Zealand on December 7 at 4pm from Chicago, landing in Los Angeles hours later. Pretty easy, right? Unfortunately, we were just getting started. Next up was a five-hour layover at LAX followed by a 14-hour flight to Auckland, New Zealand.
I’ve taken a few long-haul flights before (once to Moscow, Russia through Frankfurt, Germany and on to Baikonur, Kazakhstan for the Expedition 54 crewed launch to the Space Station) and at first 14 hours seemed quite daunting. But after checking my flight reservation and noticing we would be flying aboard the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, the ride made the effort worth it. We arrived two days later on December 9, which was sort of disorienting. (Between a 14-hour flight and the 19-hour time difference between Los Angeles and Auckland, it was nice knowing you, December 8, 2018)
So, for those keeping score, let’s add up the time spent so far…
- 10 hours awake in the United States
- A four-hour afternoon flight from Chicago to Los Angeles
- Another five-hour layover
- 14-hour flight to Auckland
For a totally of 33 hours of travel to reach our destination. Almost. After landing late-morning time in Auckland, we had to next find our rental car and begin the seven-hour trip to Gisborne. It’s a town of roughly ~37,000 people, which represents the nearest populated area to the Mahia Peninsula launch site. Flying 14 hours with a backpack of lenses, carry-on roller bag of camera bodies, and two checked bags with tripods (not to mention clothes for two weeks), there was a lot to keep track of. Luckily, our airline got the bags to us in time—otherwise we would have run into some serious issues being 7+ hours from the airport while staying near the launch site.
But all those logistical challenges quickly faded away as we began the drive through the upper portion of New Zealand’s North Island. It was full of winding roads, scenic coasts, and impressive overlooks.
Finally, after a grueling 40 hours awake, Brady and I arrived at our Airbnb a few hours before sunset. We set our things down and sat on the back patio for a bit to enjoy the sunset, but I was just zonked. Making it to sundown, I was not. I laid down and woke up just over 12 hours later (in the exact same position I laid down in). Being awake for 40+ hours will do that to you, but no one said rocket photography was easy.
Planning for showtime
After a good nights sleep, it was time to get to work for the reason we were really here—a New Zealand rocket launch! From our Airbnb in Gisborne, we had just a tad more travel: one more a 90-minute drive to the town of Mahia followed by another hour-drive to the southern tip of the Mahia Peninsula, where the launch complex is located. Mahia itself is a very small town of ~700 people located on the east side of the North Island of New Zealand. LC-1, the world’s first private orbital launch complex/range, is located just south of the town on the Mahia Peninsula.
Often when it comes to photographing launches, members of the media are escorted out to the launch pad and allowed to set up cameras in a relatively small, predetermined area. If you remember my experience with the Falcon Heavy last year, for instance, we actually had a multitude of locations possible. Rocket photographer are usually not that fortunate.
But if the SpaceX experience was better than most, Rocket Lab presents photographers with something cooler still. With Launch Complex-1 and Electron this time around, Brady and I had near-total creative freedom when placing our cameras. We had the ability to place things on top of structures, at the base of the rocket on the ground, clamped to handrails—basically besides physically attaching a camera to the rocket, we could put cameras anywhere.
The creative approaches you can take with an opportunity like are endless, which presents its own kind of challenge. Where do you begin if everything is possible and the canvas is white? Still, this was an incredible opportunity. And I brought with me six sound-activated remote cameras ready to be placed around the launch pad as soon as I came up with an idea for each.
Pretty quickly in terms of desired shots, I knew I wanted to tick three major checkboxes. The other three would be a bonus. My shot chart was…
- An engine shot (those super dark/underexposed photos that show the detail in the rocket exhaust)
- A really close vertical shot. While the Electron vehicle is quite powerful, it is also one of the shortest rockets. A nearby, vertically-oriented camera framed tightly on the rocket would make it look much taller than it actually is.
- A good horizontal photo from either the opposite side of the vertically oriented camera (for a change of scenery, not to look like a different crop of the same photo) or one from the same side but even closer. Horizontal photos work really well for Web use among many other things, and I know horizontal photos have a much better chance of being used as a feature photo than vertical photos or a collage of vertical photos—so I definitely wanted to make this a priority (and often do make horizontal launch images a priority).
Beyond conceptualizing images, this launch of the Electron rocket provided many challenges besides the regular ones faced at the US launch sites. And even more than the amount of travel required and the freedom given to our remote camera placements, the largest challenge we faced was finding a decent viewing location. In locations like Florida (Cape Canaveral AFB / Kennedy Space Center) or California (Vandenberg AFB) where launches are fairly regular, there are public places set aside with great launch viewing in mind. In some cases, there are even guides, blog posts, or videos including example photos, descriptions of each, and what the benefits / detriments are to watching from that location.
But when it came to launch viewing in New Zealand, the Mahia Peninsula is made up almost entirely of private farmland and unfortunately, we weren’t able to watch the launch from up close—only our cameras had that privilege. And since this represented only Rocket Lab’s fourth flight of the Electron rocket, there were none of those information-rich blog posts or photographer-written guides on where to stand. Florida has 40+ years of exploring the Space Coast, for this we needed to do the research ourselves. Or, did we?
Enter, Wi-Fi-enabled toilets.
Between the towns of Mahia and Nuhaka, Opoutama Road runs along the ocean and features scenic viewpoints/pull offs every couple of miles. And on one of our trips from Gisborne to Mahia, we noticed it had a peculiar looking dish on the top. “‘What would that be for? Browsing the Web while you’re in the john?”
As we pulled off to the side of the road and pulled up the Wi-Fi settings on our phones, sure enough, there it was. A Wi-Fi network with no password. Testing the download speed, it was pretty decent: 8mb/s down and 6 up! Amazing for an area with zero cell reception. Is it the best for banking or other network operations that require a secure connection? No, because where that little dish points and where that Internet is coming from may never be known. But we do know that little dish would allow us to watch and stream the launch live from out on location.
Listing image by Trevor Mahlmann