CooperBen2009

Alumnus Captures NASA Launches for a Living

If you’ve seen an official photograph of a launch at Cape Canaveral, there’s a good chance it was taken by Embry-Riddle alum Ben Cooper (’08, DB).

While earning his bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, Cooper attended launches and built up a photography portfolio that eventually landed him a position with the NASA photography team and, later, industry leaders such as SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Orbital-ATK, among others. As a student, Cooper was a member of the Avion staff for over four years. He also has worked for various air and space publications, earning several awards as well as national recognition.

As a launch photographer, Cooper has captured more than 175 launches at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center since 1999. Photographing launches requires precision and setting up as many as 25 cameras (per launch) at various angles with remote sensors. In this Q&A below, Cooper shares his experiences being a launch photographer.

 How did you get into photographing launches?

I was always interested in aviation and astronomy as a kid, and later really got into the space program. I also developed photography as my hobby when I was very young, getting my first camera at 8 years old and doing darkroom work by the time I was around 13. I became really interested in seeing a space shuttle launch in person, and then in my freshman year of high school my dad took me down to try and see one. The launch was aborted just 7 seconds before liftoff and we did not stay to see it go off a few days later, but the experience changed my life. We tried not once, but twice more before finally seeing one go off on the third trip down. After that, I wanted to see more, of course, and he let me go on my own. All I knew at the time was that I wanted to work for NASA and that engineering was the way to go. 

What was the most memorable launch or moment from your career?

Certainly, the first launch I saw, but also as I said, the first time we tried was just as memorable despite it not going off that night. It was a surreal scene just to be out there, seeing it bathed in lights under a clear sky. This changed my life. Hard to pick a most memorable launch, but the first shuttle launch at night I saw was special. 

What goes into getting the perfect launch shot?

Planning. Almost every great shot I've taken involved planning in advance and getting it right. Sometimes it takes more than one try, but much of the time you only get one try. And it's those times when you nail it on the first try that you really feel good. Anticipating the exact lighting conditions, even precisely where the sun will be in the sky, is a factor, as is the weather, the rocket's trajectory and other things.

I understand you have to set up your equipment as many as three days before a launch. What does that entail? 

No one is allowed closer than few miles for a launch. All of the photos you see of launches over the years taken from near the launch pad are taken by remotely operated cameras set up ahead of time. Generally, I set up anywhere from one to three days ahead of time. It depends on how many I am setting up and what the rules are with each launch. Areas are frequently off limits once the rocket is on the launch pad, or tests on the rocket are being conducted. The weather can influence all of this, too. The actual setup can be fun. I've walked into swamps with alligators, snakes and spiders many times. I've literally set up camera tripods in the water to get the shot I want. None of that bothers me, though. The hard part is dealing with the mosquitoes and the humidity.

What are some of the risks associated with shooting a launch?

The biggest risks are losing camera equipment due to exposure to the rocket or the weather. Extreme heat from the rocket at launch and flying debris are something I deal with regularly. I've lost many lenses from sand or rocks being sprayed in that direction at the time of liftoff. The cameras must also be protected from not just the launch, but the weather. Rain, condensation and salt air are just some of the issues.

You also have traveled around the world to capture solar eclipses. What went into getting some of your favorite eclipse shots?

Traveling is a passion. Seeing a total solar eclipse was another goal of mine when I was young, and along with a rocket launch, it's something everyone should see at least once in their life. Total eclipses are magical, one of the greatest sights in nature as they are frequently described. But they only take place every couple of years in a narrow band across the globe that you have to travel to get to. "Eclipse chasers" are die-hards who travel to try and see them all. I've traveled to see six so far. Two of them involved going up in an airplane to intercept the moon's shadow about the clouds. Like launches, you have just one chance to get your photos right. That might be another reason I love it so much, as there is excitement in capturing a photo of something you don't get a second shot at. 

How did Embry-Riddle prepare you for your career?

During my years at ERAU, my passion for photographing the launches increased and my work became recognized more and more.

I have a very technical mind. I've always been great at math and science, and having this kind of mindset translates directly into the photography that I do and is very applicable for photographing space and astronomical-related subjects. I can mentally work out things like the trajectories, positions in the sky, angles etc. beforehand in my head and easily visualize all of this when setting up the cameras. So that is where I feel my engineering background definitely comes into play. When I worked for NASA, I also did engineering photography on the Space Shuttle as opposed to just pretty pictures. After the Columbia accident in 2003, which was caused by a piece of fuel tank foam crashing into its fragile thermal-protection tiles during launch, NASA established new photography rules on the ground. That involved photographing every space shuttle tile and all angles of the orbiter, fuel tank and solid rocket motors before every launch. Then this imagery was used to compare new imagery taken on orbit or after the mission, to check for any damage that could threaten the shuttle or its crew. My engineering degree was a factor in getting that position in the beginning.

Do you have any advice for students who want to pursue a similar career path?

I've been very lucky. There is not a widespread industry for photographing launches. Photography has also changed dramatically in my lifetime. Everyone is taking photos now and it's getting harder to develop a career as a photographer or stand out among the crowd. Those who do have a niche are able to define a specialty that they are really good at. Luckily, there are still positions open for such photography. If you enjoy photography, keep at it. Your work will speak for yourself and doors may open if your work is seen as special and useful in a particular field.

See more of Ben's work at www.LaunchPhotography.com/.

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