Even as a non American, the close up shot of the massive U..S..A.. on the side of the Saturn as it lifted slowly from the pad is, to me still one of the most impressive and iconic pieces of space-related footage ever shot and even now still fills me with emotion.
This and many, many other launch shots of the Apollo and later space shuttle missions are still so good, not only because they are amazing eye candy but because they showed the launches in ways we just don’t see these days.
Many of these were originally intended as engineering footage and only meant to be seen by a few to verify everything was going according to plan or record when it didn’t.
These close-up shots of the things like engines starting up and going full throttle from just a few meters away, all the way to the stage separation some 30-odd miles high were caught in amazing detail on what many would now regard as old and antiquated film cameras.
Yet, even with all the advances in camera technology we have made over the last 60 years, we still seem to struggle to create shots of the modern-day equivalents namely the Artemis and Starship launches that match the Saturn and Shuttle.
So in this video we can enjoy some of those iconic pieces of footage again and look at maybe why we aren’t seeing the same again for the latest generation of space hardware but also the opportunities new cameras bring.
Back in the days of the space race, the US government mostly through NASA made public information films that would show the progress of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions often going into detail about how they were trying to achieve a particular outcome, on almost every subject from how the engines were tested to what the astronauts would be doing in space. Thousands of these films were made and helped keep the public interest in space in the 60s, 70s and 80s and now with the internet, they have found a whole new audience.
These films are now an invaluable source of information if you want to find out more about our struggle to get where we are today and understand how the race for space was seen at the time in a world that is very different to that we live in now.
Launches, both test and real were filmed and showed the successes and the failures in glorious colour but these films were not just to show the public where their hard-earned tax dollars were going. Their primary purpose was to record where things went right and wrong.
This wasn’t a new idea, in WW2 the German engineers recorded the test flights of the very first ballistic rocket system the V2. After the war, these ideas came with them to the US as they started work on creating the successors to the V2 which eventually would become the Saturn rockets of the Apollo program.
From 1950 to 1998 there were over 3400 launches from Cape Canaveral / Kennedy Space Center and of that about 450 failures occurred.
Documenting the tests on film became more sophisticated as the rockets became larger and the placement of the cameras into areas that would have been impossible with human camera operators like in the early days of the German V2.
Some of the most amazing shots were from the Mobile launch platform or MLP which held the Apollo Saturn 5 and later the Space shuttle. In the time of the Saturn rockets, the MLP also held the Launch Umbilical Tower as well as the Saturn 5.
When the Shuttle came along the tower was removed and a Fixed Service Structure at the launch pad was used, leaving just the Shuttle to be carried on the MLP.
Upto 120 cameras were used to capture footage not only right next to the rockets but also from camera platforms around the launch site and up and down the coast to track the craft until they were at the edge of space.
Starting with Apollo, cameras were placed in locations that seemed almost impossible and allowed them to capture never before seen images like this footage was of the Saturn 5 on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The camera was a Photosonic 16mm film camera running at 500 frames per second and probably using a 10mm lens which was common at these distances.
These were used around the MLP to record highspeed footage for engineering purposes. This one, known as E8 or echo 8, looked at the F-1 engines and the hold-down arms from 5 seconds before the launch till about 15 seconds after the launch. This footage would also show that one of the covers for a hold-down arm failed to retract and cover the arm properly. It also showed the effectiveness of water deluge system and the ablative paint on the hold-down arm covers.
This and other cameras were mounted within about 5 meters of the rocket, to look at various aspects of the launch.
Cameras were also mounted on the Launch Umbilical Tower to monitor the swing arms retracting, supply lines disconnecting, and to check the exterior of the rocket as it left the pad, and this is where we get the U.S.A lettering passing the camera.
When the shuttle was in service, cameras were mounted on the Fixed Service Structure to record the same as it left the pad and looked for damaged heat tiles, SRB’s and and covering foam for the fuel tank.
Back on the MLP, to survive the incredible heat and blast from the F-1’s, they were housed in a steel enclosures made from half-inch or 12.5 mm steel plate, inside that was another enclosure made from half-inch or 12.5 mm aluminum plate.
So as not to pose an explosion risk because of vented hydrogen from the tanks and the rocket engines that could get into the enclosures before the engines ignited, these enclosures were pressurized with 7psi of nitrogen throughout the launch. The cameras then looked through a special quartz window to withstand the heat and blast of the rocket exhaust.
Although this is shot on 16mm film, the quality of the film is still high fairly even by today’s standards. 16mm film has an equivalent digital resolution of about 2300 x 1700 depending on the grain size and how it is scanned but it’s the way film reacts when it is overexposed which really marks it out compared HD digital cameras of the late 80s and onwards.
Whilst the exhaust from the F1 engines is very bright as in this Apollo footage you can still see the blue sky in the background and the dark areas on the MLP.
It’s only when the rocket has lifted up enough to allow the water from the deluge system to be blown around instead of flashing to steam that the image whites out for a moment before coming back again.
We can see this better in footage of the shuttle launch with the Solid Rocket Boosters or SRB’s and the RS-25 main engines. The SRBs are in reality much, much brighter than the RS-25s which burn just hydrogen and Oxygen, producing just hot water vapour or gas which doesn’t produce much light in the process.
The SRB’s use a solid propellant that contains ammonium perchlorate as the oxidizer at 69.6% by weight, atomized aluminum powder as the fuel, 16%, iron oxide as the catalyst, 0.4%, and a binder which also acts as fuel, 12.04%.
These materials burn much brighter by as much as a thousand times more than the RS-25. Looking at a normal shuttle launch from a distance the SRB’s are as bright as the sun and to the naked eye you can’t see anything.
But looking at this footage taken with a 16mm film camera on the MLP you can see not only the RS-25 exhaust plumes but also the SRB exhaust and the blue sky behind, really showing the very wide dynamic range of the film, that its ability to capture both dark and very bright images at the same time.
The 16mm cameras used an automatic exposure system which can be seen operating as the sky turns a deeper shade of blue as the very bright exhaust of the SRB come in the shot, but it doesn’t wash out the entire image.
We can compare this with a shot of the SLS rocket on the Artemis 1 mission back in Nov 2022 using a modern digital camera. Because this was a night launch there is much less overall light in the shot but you will see that the SRBs over-expose the image so much so, you can’t see anything once they light up and come into the shot.
Seen from another camera that had a lower exposure setting the image is now very dark until the SRBs light up the scene, but even then you can only see the exhaust plumes and not much of the rocket or the surrounding area considering just how bright these SRB’s are.
This highlights the biggest difference between film and digital cameras, the ability of film to handle overexposed situations.
I came across a great example by Bill Lawson on his Youtube channel comparing the dynamic range of film vs digital over a 21-stop range. For what I want to show I’ll only use the over-exposure test, you can see the full test in the link in the description.
This is using film and digital stills cameras but the same principle would apply to moving images.
As the exposure goes up 1 stop at a time, the film image gradually loses detail and becomes progressively more grainy the higher the exposure, but you can still clearly see the image. However, the digital image quickly starts to break down after +6 stops and by +10 stops it’s completely washed out.
The very latest top-end digital cameras like the RED V-Raptor has 17 stops of dynamic range and can match that of film but I don’t if they can handle very overexposed images in the same way that film can, maybe any RED users out there can let me know in the comments.
Another issue that most modern CMOS cameras have is the rolling shutter effect. This is caused because the image of each frame is built up by scanning the image line by line from the top to the bottom.
This takes a certain amount of time so with a fast-moving image or if the camera is subject to vibration like that from a launch of a powerful rocket nearby, the image can move before the scan completes the frame, making the subject look its bending which can be seen in this shot of the SpaceX starship launch.
Film cameras or digital cameras which have a global shutter expose the whole frame in one go so rolling shutter is not an issue as you can see on every shot of the Apollo program in the 60s and 70s.
And on the issues of stability, the NASA long-range shots were taken with mobile camera mounts which were developed from WW2 anti-aircraft gun carriers. Even the modern Kino Tracking Mounts were very large and extremely sturdy and had to hold multiple 3800 to 5000mm lenses weighing about a hundred kg each. Any slight shake induced by the vibration from the rocket or wind would make the shot focused on the high-speed moving rocket unusable.
The use of lighter camera mounts today also contributes to shaky takes off videos.
So whilst the change in camera technology may mean that we don’t see the close-up engine shots like we did with Apollo and the Shuttle using film cameras, the miniaturisation of today’s cameras opens up new visual opportunities such as in the staging section of the SpaceX Starship and external views from the outside for the rockets during take-off and for the reusable booster landings. Maybe one day we will get digital camera technology that will allow us to see close ups of the engines at take-off like the Apollo and shuttle days or for these special images, we could take a leaf out of the old book and just use film cameras again.