Nikon at Cape Kennedy – Part 3 – Space Shuttle

As you can see from the first two posts – there were lots of problems that had to be solved. The solutions didn’t come easy and required a lot of testing and experimenting.

Remote site during one of the first 5 Shuttle Launches. Only the first 5 launches had the center tank painted white ©Bill Pekala

Someone that read the first post refered it to a friend who contacted me.  Geoff Miller, the son of Rex Miller, sent me this photo of his dads sound trigger, Rex was one of the original “Nikon Guys” that were working the Nikon Motorhome during the Apollo days. I remember meeting Rex during the Apollo days at the Cape. Rex seems to remember that it was put together for him by John Slack or Ron Thompson. He was not sure which.

It was baiscally a modified kit from Radio Shack. According to John, the TPT (toilet paper tube) was to focus the sound into the microphone and hopefullly reduce the chance of premature firing due to wind noise.

 

©Geoff Miller

©Geoff Miller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to trip the cameras remotely. Ground vibrations were caused by helicopters flying over the remote area and sometimes would trip the cameras. As would the SWAT teams prowling around the launch pad. This had not been a problem during Apollo but the enhanced security for the Shuttle launches came with problems for the remotes. Sound triggers had been around since the late Apollo launches but as electronics got smaller and better they were much more dependable. Sound triggers, if set properly, proved to be very reliable. They still had the problem of being active once set in the field but a solution for that would come somewhere down the road.

One of the first new ideas was a light sensitive cell behind a small spotting scope looking at the motors. These worked well most of the time but failed if the wind blew the exhaust toward the remotes so that the sensor didn’t get the flame in sight.

The best solution that came about during the first few launches were vibration  triggers. A vibration sensor that Ron Thompson had pioneered in conjunction with Ralph Morris from Life magazine triggered most of the remotes that did fire during the first couple of Shuttle launches. They were cheaper than the telescopes with photocells on the eyepiece and seemed to be more dependable. Ron and Ralph were more than willing to share with the rest of the photographers what they knew about the “geophones” and how to use it.

Shuttle geophone trigger

The “Geophone” sensor was a device made for the oil exploration industry to measure ground vibrations. You placed it in the ground and ran a cord to your cameras – the vibrations would close the circuit and trigger the cameras. © Bill Pekala

 

What exposure. This had to be right since it was film and no Adobe Photoshop. After analyzing a lot of the images from the first few launches this became pretty simple to solve. The Shuttle put out more light than the sun so “the sunny 16 rule” was the start and closing the aperture about 1 ½ stops would hold detail in everything other than the brightest areas of the flame.

Control of frame rate, how fast would the shuttle leave the pad? A Saturn rocket took 10-15 seconds to clear the tower. It sat and burned on the pad for quite a while before it even seemed to move. Newer cameras fired faster, the F3 had just come out and would be the camera of choice. It fired at 6FPS with Ni-Cad batteries and 4FPS with AA batteries.

Slowing the frame rate down was a lot harder than it would seem. Ideally we wanted to shoot at about 3 FPS, that would give 12 seconds for the ignition and clearing the tower. Once the Shuttle stated to move it took about 6 seconds for it to move above the launch pad. The solution was finally a wooden dowel with contacts that could replace two of the AA batteries in the tray. This lower voltage allowed for the slower frame rate.

 

mk1

Later, based on a lot of input and constant tech questions from NPS, Nikon introduced the MK-1 frame rate adapter for the F3. This allowed the photographer to dial in the rate they needed. I’m sure the engineers thought we were crazy for asking to “slow” the F3 down when most people wanted to shoot as fast as they could.

Multiple cameras on a tripod. It seems silly today with all the gadgets that are made but at the time, it was rare to have more than one camera on a tripod. It took a lot of ingenuity to put two or more cameras in a location. There were  “Bogen Super Clamps” but very expensive and while  people may own one they didn’t own several. This required cutting wood or lengths of aluminum and drilling to attach multiple ball heads.

Apollo5

 Florida weather & protecting the cameras, hot, humid, heavy dew, bugs, sun on black cameras, fallout from the toxic exhaust. All unknowns.

This proved be one of the biggest problems. It was necessary to protect the equipment from the elements and prevent dew from forming on the front of the lens. The toxic exhaust would also eat away at the paint on the bodies. People at the early launches were wrapping their equipment with plastic bags and tape. Early morning or late evening launches would almost always result in dew obscuring the lens. Cameras had to be unwrapped to reload and reset if there were delays and delays were normal in the early launches.

Mike Phillips came up with an idea that if you could find the right container you could protect the camera from all this. Since Tupperware’s international headquarters was just down the road toward Orlando, we took a ride to check out what they had to offer. Tupperware would not sell directly, we ultimately ended up at a Tupperware lady’s home near the Cape, literally checking out containers in her refrigerator. We came up with just the right one and purchased some from her. ONCE THE PURCHASE WAS MADE FROM HER, WE WERE ALLOWED TO DRIVE BACK OVER TO ORLANDO AND PICK THEM UP.

Apollo3

With simple modifications, you could mount the camera, set everything, load the film, and seal it up, ready to set in place at the remote locations.

Apollo2

Mike Phillips setting up cameras the night before placing them on site. ©Bill Pekala

After seeing this set up, people started showing up with cameras mounted in all sorts of boxes. Mail boxes, pelican cases with the sides cut out and replaced with a Plexiglas window and of course, Tupperware of all sorts. This pretty much solved all the problems except the dew problem.

A photographer showed up at the trailer with a camera that had a broken rewind knob. After the camera was fixed, the repairman tossed the knob over to us and we both noticed that the lever just flopped around. We were told that the spring was not there that kept it from flopping open.

We found that if you connected a rubber band to it, when the film advanced, it would flop over and release the rubber band. By attaching a Tupperware lid to it and placing it just right, it would stay over the lens until the camera fired. PROBLEM SOLVED!!!!!  (back to see our local tupperware lady)

Apollo4

It was great sight to see the Tupperware caps flapping in the breeze when you went to pick up remotes – you could tell before you even got close that the cameras had fired and released the caps. ©Bill Pekala

Now that we had the basics down it was time to solve a few more logistic problems. Part 4 coming soon I promise.

  1. Bernie Campoli says:

    I still have a few of the Orange Tupperware containers and about a dozen Super clamps.

  2. Bill just discovered your articles and read them non stop. Great stuff. Wonderful to be reminded about all the wonderful people we worked with and to learn more about their/your involvement.

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