Behind the scenes of a rocket launch

October 25, 2011

By Benoit Tessier

France has a launch pad 7,000 km away from Paris in French Guyana, an overseas region located on the northern Atlantic coast of South America.

For the first time in spatial history, two satellites from the Galileo navigation system program are going to be sent to space using the mythical Soyuz rocket which, during previous launches, sent the first satellite (Sputnik) and the first man (Yuri Garagarin) into space. The event is historic and shows the progress made in space exploration since the end of the cold war. The launch was delayed by three years from its original launch date and I was at last going to be the lucky one to cover the launch, designated “VS01”.

The only problem was that I had never set foot in French Guyana nor previously photographed a rocket launch!

Since its design back in the 50’s, Soyuz (“Union” in Russian) was built in the Samara space complex on the banks of the Volga. In order to get to French Guyana, all the various rocket parts were shipped from there. After 15 days of shipping, they eventually got to Pariacabo harbor, on the Kourou river where they were then carried by truck to the CSG (Guyana Space Center) launch site, specifically set up for Soyuz, located in Sinnamary where they were stocked. The Russian rocket could then be assembled in a big warehouse in order to be put upright.

There are only five hotels in Kourou and obviously they were all fully booked a long time in advance. I managed to find a room at a local’s house thanks to an advert placed on a local internet site. I set up my base camp there and emptied my luggage weighing 60 kilos after an eight hour flight.

The day after my arrival, at 5:30 am local time I went to the CSG in order to collect my access badge and meet Mario de Lépine (the Arianespace Media Relations Manager) whom I had only previously been in contact with by phone or mail. The weather was already very hot (30 Celsius degrees) and I tried to acclimate myself to the tropical humidity. After a 25 km drive North within the enormous CSG, we arrived in front of the integration building MIK (Montazhno-Ispytatelniy Korpus) and at 7:30 am the three levels of the Soyuz rocket were moved to the launch pad located 625 meters away. The walkie talkies blasted orders in Russian. It was a big and emotional moment for me, as I had never seen an old missile turning into a real rocket before.

The launch was planned for 20th October at 10:34:28 GMT. It was a launch which required extremely accurate timing and did not leave any room for error. For the past few days I had been looking at photos of previous Soyuz launches at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and all the simulations done by the ESA (European space Agency). On the eve of the launch, I decided, after some negotiating with the Media Relations Manager, to place two cameras in an air conditioned shelter on the East side of the pad. I decided against the North and the West sides for fear of too much smoke and possible bad exposures.

I set two Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with two different lenses (24-105mm f/4 L and 70-200mm f/2,8L IS II) and programmed the Timer Remote Controllers TC-80N3 so that they triggered at 10:34 GMT, about 30 seconds before the launch. Since my arrival in French Guyana, the weather was shining brightly but suddenly on my return from the shelter, clouds started to darken the sky, lightning struck nearby with a loud crack. At that moment I started to doubt my settings.

On D-Day at 5:30 am (local time) I heard about the stop of the chronological launch in the hall of the Hotel des Roches (my meeting point). “Following an anomaly detected during fueling of the Soyuz launcher’s third stage, the final countdown has been interrupted“. I immediately rang the newsroom to give them the news. In the Jupiter control room, the countdown stopped at -2:09:46. I travelled thousands of kilometers to cover this exceptional launch and suddenly, excitement turned to waiting and wondering.

If the engineers managed to replace the faulty valve and the onsite teams were able to lift off then the launch would take place on the next morning. The waiting was very long at the press center. During the whole morning, everybody commented on the rest of the news in the world. Gaddafi’s death quickly replaced Soyuz in the discussions and during that time I could not help myself wondering whether my timers would trigger at the right time. I went to the shelter under escort and reset the timers in case the launch took place on the following day. I took a peek at the 2,000 pictures (8 pictures/second until the memory card was full). The rocket was still on the ground, the shelter windows were down, the pad was under a blue sky and my timers had worked perfectly, what a relief! I did not change the settings, changed the batteries and went back to the press center. I had to wait until 4 pm (local time) to find out if they decided to try another Soyuz launch at 10:30:26 (GMT) on 21st October. Fingers crossed!

On the following morning, I arrived at the hall of Hotel Des Roches where all the VIPs were gathered. The status report was “weather ok, end boosters filling, all nominal”. I got on a bus to the Colibri observation post located 5.5 km away from the launch pad. During the short trip we were shown how to use oxygen masks in case of an accident. It was from the Colibri center that I would take photos of the launch using a 600mmf/4L IS USM. At 6:50 am I arrived at my position, prepared my equipment, but five minutes before the actual launch, rain started pouring on Soyuz. During the lift off one could barely see the rocket going up in the air. Apparently the launch was far less impressive than what it could have been for Ariane: more powerful, brighter. In the sky, amidst the clouds, a yellowish stain and in less than five seconds it was all over. I had to rely on my two cameras in the shelter…

I would have to wait three hours to know whether my two cameras worked well or not. The end result was far better than the dot of light going at full speed towards space that I could see from the observation post. I had enough material to illustrate the various phases of lift off.

At 11:20 am (local) after 10 years of collaboration between the Europeans and the Russians, the two Galileo satellites separated from the engine and went into orbit at 23,222 km above my head marking the end of the first Soyuz mission from the Guyana Space Center. The 1,777th lift off in history and the first one for me.


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Hey Benoit, great work! Nice to see you again, this time behind a 600 mm Reuters lens!
Cool story.

Posted by Photoluc | Report as abusive

Great moment to get a great photos 😉
Thanks for share..


Posted by aliepodja | Report as abusive

Why so many photographers in one place, one would be enough!

Posted by NEWSTIME2010 | Report as abusive

Awesome! Great pictures.
You might enjoy this, a shot from a rocket going up – no clouds: qu8k_launch/

Posted by veisa | Report as abusive

Sometimes, one can get away with just a Canonet QL 19, with a colleague’s hands firmly pressed on one’s ears, by way of noise suppression, to create a picture, albeit by cropping out nearly one third of the image

Posted by | Report as abusive