October 26, 2018 - No Comments!

Telling the story of NASA’s ICESat-2 Satellite Launch

How do you tell the story of a powerful event in your life? How do you convey the emotional weight of that event, and invite others to experience it as you did – fully immersed and totally engaged?

In September, 2018 I had the honor of being invited to go to Lompoc, California, and shoot video and photo content around the pre-launch and launch of NASA's ICESat-2 Satellite. ICESat-2 is an elevation scanning satellite that circles the earth in polar orbit, shooting ten thousand lasers toward the earth – per second. It is collecting elevation data for the polar regions, and the entire world, to specifically track the shift in sea and land ice to understand how our world is changing, and what we can expect in the next 10 to 50, to 100 years down the road. Tons of data. Serious insight into humanity's impact on this planet. Developed and built by passionate scientists and engineers.

So, after being shuttled around Vandenberg Air Force Base for several days, and given tours of numerous integral parts of the launch process facilities, and waking up at 3:00am to be shuttled to our launch viewing area, we finally got to watch the very last Delta II rocket carry the NASA Ice payload into the sky. The anticipation had built up over the week, and this was the final, glorious release. Damn. Incredible.

Ok, so let's back up and talk about the planning, the shooting, and the subsequent arduous task of editing.

In preparation for the entire event, I sat down and thought about the psychology of rocket launches. Much like fireworks on the Fourth of July, it is a spectacle of both a visual nature, as well as a physical impact through sound and reverberation. But, as well all know by now, watching someone's video of fireworks leaves much to be desired. The sight of an explosion is interesting, but without the context of the environment and the sensation of the sound and shockwave... it doesn't carry the WOW-factor to the viewer. This is why we all resent our friends and colleagues posting their camera-phone quality videos of their local fireworks display. No offense... but it sucks. Stop it.

So if I'm not going to simply show the epic launch of a NASA rocket and payload, then what am I going to share? This is where the story planning starts. Instead of showing the bright explosion, wouldn't it be interesting to turn the camera around and just watch the viewers' faces? Wouldn't it be cool if you could see their emotional response to the sight and sound? Wouldn't it be even more incredible if you could understand THEIR story that led them here, and connect their background to the emotions they are expressing while watching the launch? Yes. Yes it would be cool. So... now I just had to hunt for those stories, connect them with the right people, and try to fill in what my concept was with the reality before me.

As far as gear goes, I made a conscious decision to travel LIGHT and leave the niceties behind. No gimbals, no tripods, no monitors. I took my Sony A7Sii, Zeiss 16-35 f/4, Zeiss 55 f/1.8, Sony G Master 90 f/2.8 macro (for super long, and SUPER close shots). Aside from that, I brought my Gorilla Pod 5k, my Røde Videomic Pro+, and my laptop. SUPER light. I'm always constantly reminded that GEAR IS A MEANS TO AN END... and if your story comes to you without the need for anything special... accept it. Run with it. Be in that moment and capture what is in front of you.

Expect the unexpected and you'll still probably be expecting too much. My plan was somewhat sound, and as the week went by I shot hours of footage, waiting for those special moments to jump out at me. I captured so much interesting content, but I was still lacking the FOCUS of my intended plan. Travel shots, b-roll of the environments, reactions to the other NASA Social participants (who were totally awesome, by the way), talks given by NASA scientists, engineers, and other team members involved with the ICESat-2 mission and rocket. The footage was flowing like fresh mountain runoff, but the intent for that footage was unclear. I was nebulous in my content direction. I was lost.

To be really honest with myself, I was feeling a bit too reserved for this event. I was lacking confidence to do what it took to get what I needed. This was a learning lesson. If you want something you've never had, you have to be willing to do something you've never done.

On the day before the launch, we had the opportunity to go right up to the launchpad, and experience the rocket up close. This is where I was blessed with a second chance. We got to hear from Scott Messer, the program manager for United Launch Alliance – the team that manages the rocket, itself, and makes sure that the Delta II is doing what it needs to be doing to succeed its mission. As seen in the video above, Scott shared his thoughts and feelings about this historic launch, and gave me that first true glimpse of the emotional tone I had been hunting for. It was in this moment that I saw the spark, and was filled with confidence that the idea was still valid, and that I could salvage it. In this place, in the shadow of an enormous rocket – the last of its kind – on the eve of the launch; this was the place where we were all beginning to see the magic. Our guards were down, and we were uniting as a group of humans – PROUD of our peoples' accomplishments, marveling at the sight of this 12-story beast of astrophysics and rocket power. This is where the emotions were beginning to come through.

Just to jump in with some technical specs – I shoot almost everything in either 60 or 120 fps, 1080p. It gives me the flexibility to manipulate the footage in SO many ways, and milk every frame of the sweet, magical moments that land in my frame. In my humble opinion... resolution, perfect focus, and even color totally come second to the story or message. I care not that I may lose focus for a fraction of a shot because the story or message is so powerful or sincere that, if I wanted, I could cut to a still photo of the launchpad and it would still carry the emotional weight of the story.

In the final moments of that day – the eve of the launch – I was able to shoot video of Scott Messer (ULA), as well as Nathan Kurts (Ph.D, no duh), who is one of the NASA physical scientists involved with the NASA Ice missions. Nathan's enthusiasm for his role in the original ICESat mission, his leadership in the Ice Bridge mission (flying planes DAILY over the poles), and his upcoming role for ICESat-2 was... contagious, to say the least. There are few people on this planet that truly embody their passion – FULLY – and Nathan might be one of them. The way he talked about the missions was much like someone who recently fell head-over-heels for a new crush. Submerged in affectionate wonder. Totally absorbed (in a really positive way).

As the sunset rolled in, then out, and the rich color faded to darkness, all I could think of was how to finish this whole story out. As 3am arrived the next morning, I scrambled out of my room to get to the launch viewing location so I could capture as MUCH as possible.

In the crowd at the local school's bleachers, there were probably 60-80 people, wrapped in layers of jackets and blankets, and huddled awkwardly with strangers to fit in the small space. I shot a LOT of footage waiting for some nuggets, but mostly only got half-asleep individuals holding their own cameras or phones, ready for something exceptional. I'm so glad that the NASA Social participants had spent so much time together during the week. I naturally gravitated toward my new pals and watched the event (while shooting everyone... as much as possible) in the 5:30am light.

The launch went exactly as I expected. EPIC countdowns from the control center (thank you Air Force team for putting on the loudspeakers), an insane amount of build up, and finally... IGNITION. The light from the launchpad was insane. The rocket gently lifted up, and up, and... gone. Into the clouds; into the dark. Bye!

It was hard to tell by just looking, but the fog had settled into a low cloud cover, and the rocket was gone within mere moments. But you know what? My GUT instinct at the very beginning was right. The launch IS cool. But the launch is the 'roll-credits' moment on the story. The real powerful moments were SO much earlier. The REAL story started years and years ago when the FIRST ICESat mission was being planned. And that's okay.

After the launch moment, the crowd cheered and laughed. The rocket looked EPIC for about 4 seconds, then we saw nothing. Then the crowd slowly loaded into the shuttle bus back to the parking lot. Our NASA Social team hung back, though. We waited together because, despite it not being very long, we had been a part of this story. We had the week together on the base, meeting the team, experiencing the process. We had something invested. And only after everyone else had left did I get a chance to interview Peter Neff, a reasearcher (post-doctorate) from the University of Washington.

Peter and I first met the day before the first NASA Social meeting and grabbed dinner in Lompoc together. We connected through the ICESat-2 social facebook group, and I got to hear the story of his glaciologist research, spending time in both Greenland and Antarctica studying polar ice cores, spending insane amounts of time in the wastelands to find out where our world is headed, and why. Peter's work struck a chord in me. His passion for his craft stood out from the rest for some reason. Maybe because he's working as a researcher, fueled by public funding and tied to universities to continue his work. I'm not sure. But on that morning, after the launch, I finally asked Peter to do an interview. You can see plenty of it in the video above, but it was... special. And this was the final straw, as they say.

I ended up cutting part of his interview for continuity and time, but I'm going to write it out here:

"We're doing this research because we're fundamentally interested in it. We demonstrate that it matters in order to get support from taxpayer-funded organizations. So we do the research for people. So that's a big thing for me. I don't want to be working on science projects or doing private work that doesn't MATTER for people in a positive way... It's a bit naive, perhaps, but I try to... seek the truth. That's what science is all about – It's about honesty and truth, and those are values that I'm all about."

That last line was the final interview of the entire trip. The last video I took of ANYONE. And that clip literally was all I had been waiting for. Peter, in the final moments of his beautifully descriptive and scientific chat with me, exposed his heart for his craft. ... dude, that is so good. I couldn't believe the fortune I had been blessed with over a mere 24 hours. It felt so real, and sincere, and that is all I had wanted. True, enthusiastic, heart-felt sincerity.

Compiling hundreds of gigabytes of footage, and organizing into a cohesive story is a beast of a task. The first goal was to find the gems of dialogue and to organize them in a way that would ramp up the visual story with the tone of the conversations. Finally, bring together all of the other footage to support the event, but not distract from the main message. I'm not going to go into detail about editing, but this was an overwhelming task, and I am so glad that I got it finished. Done is better than perfect, and even if some shots are really COOL... they may be unnecessary for your story. Don't be afraid to cut, cut, and cut some more.



  1. Have a plan. Think about the event or concept that you're about to shoot and consider what your angle should be. If everyone is shooting the fireworks... try something different.
  2. Be bold, and befriend everyone. The easiest way to bring out the sincerest moments of the people around you is to give them your own sincerity. Live and breathe YOU, with no restrictions. Share with them, but practice an insatiable hunger for THEIR story. Only then will they share because they're comfortable and happy that you're there to share with.
  3. Edit without remorse. There are always going to be 'cool' shots and clips that you might want to include. But you have to ask yourself does this contribute to the story and tone I'm trying to share? If not, cut it. The only person that is going to be bummed that you didn't include your nifty slow motion sequence... is you. So get over yourself and make something that works, not something that's nifty.

In the end, this experience changed something within me. I'm so glad and grateful to the NASA Social and NASA Ice teams for having me there. I'm so grateful to have connected with ALL of the NASA Social participants that traveled to Lompoc for the event (they were all so inspiring and incredible).

Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions or comments, reach out.

Published by: D1sc0very!@nickwichman.com in Videography

Leave a Reply