SpaceX Lands the Falcon 9 First Stage in California

Jason Daniel Shaw

SpaceX Lands Falcon 9 First Stage in California For the First Time

Vandenberg Air Force Base – Lompoc, Ca

A spectacular light show over the skies in California happened last night and despite the beliefs of most people, it was not caused by aliens or a ufo.  SpaceX launched their 17th rocket of the year and the first to ever have a first stage return to California soil.  It was success and the folks at SpaceX are marketing geniuses.  This is the second time that they have launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base just after sunset, allowing the sun to light up the contrail and create an amazing light display.  The first time that this happened, the residents of Southern California hypothesized that it was due to aliens or some other phenomenon.  This time, just as many people  were caught unaware and baffled at the sight.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch

Best Place to Watch the Vandenberg Launches – Lompoc, Ca

There are quite a few pages on where to watch the rocket launches at Vandenberg from so I won’t bore you with the details of that here.  What I will tell you is that the closer you can get, the more impressive it is, especially with the first stage returning to Vandenberg.  Last night, they had Ocean Ave. blocked off at Union Sugar Ave.  From that point east, Ocean Ave. and all of the farm roads that branch off of it were packed with cars for this historic event.  We made our way to Union Sugar Ave. and made a left, toward the launch facility.  Once we couldn’t go any further, we found a place to park and setup the tripod.

Photographing The Vandenberg Launches – Lompoc, Ca

This was second attempt at trying to photograph a rocket launch at night (the first one didn’t go so well as you can see here).  I wanted a long exposure of the rocket trail from the launch point, extending out of frame.  I was somewhat successful but I am still not satisfied with the result.  The biggest mistake was being so close to the launch site that we couldn’t see the actual tower due to the mountains between us and the site.  This also caused the launch frame to be short-lived and not arc over like I had hoped.  The rocket launched straight up from our perspective before it moved out of frame.  However, being so close wasn’t all bad as I will talk about later.

I forgot my second camera body at home so I wasn’t able to get secondary shots of the rocket and had to rely on the main camera.  That meant that I had to quickly change my setup once the first stage separated and started creating the spectacular light show.  I wish I would have had the second camera ready to capture a long exposure of that.  Instead, I grabbed the camera and started taking handheld images of the light plume.  That meant a shutter speed of 1/40 and ISO 3200 at f/4.0.  That was a pretty slow shutter speed to be handholding but luckily the light show was so large overhead, I to zoom out to 35mm and with the IS of the Canon 24-105mm f/4.0L, it was still sharp enough.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch Vandenberg

Experiencing The Vandenberg Launches – Lompoc, Ca

While a lot of time I fail to experience the moment when I am taking photos, I really tried to stay focused on being present this time.  Being so close to the launch meant that you could really hear the Falcon 9 as it left the pad and while we could see the pad itself, the sky lit up so bright behind the mountain, we knew exactly when to expect it.

The first time that the first stage burned its engines, everyone gasped and was in awe.  It looked as though the rocket was headed straight for us.  Having full faith in SpaceX, we knew that they would hit their mark and that they did.  The rocket landed just behind the mountains from us, leaving us with twin sonic booms just before it touched down.  The experience is one that I won’t soon forget and I can’t wait for the next launch to improve my photography skills once again.

Tips For The Vandenberg Launches – Lompoc, Ca

I am not sure if it was just because if was the first landing in California or because it was SpaceX but there were a tremendous amount of Teslas at the launch.  That meant that the Supercharger in Buellton was packed.  When we arrived, there were approximately 100 Teslas waiting to use 10 chargers.  We arrived at the supercharger at 9:15PM and didn’t finish our charge (25 minutes) until 2:00AM.  If you are going to the launch in a Tesla, make sure that you have enough charge to get there and get back to San Luis Obispo to the north or Oxnard to the south (closest chargers other than Buellton) if you don’t want to have to wait.

Also, plan on hanging out after the launch because the traffic getting out of the farm roads can be quite heavy.  It took us about an hour to finally get moving as they start clearing the roads from the east and move to the west.

I would love to hear any tips that you have or other ideas for viewing locations.  Next time I would like to get a wider perspective of the launch – preferably on a beach but I am open to suggestions.

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