Paolo Amoroso's Journal

space

I'm among those who think the best camera is the one I carry with me.

There's no grand scheme motivating my choice not to get a traditional camera, using instead my smartphone for on the go and travel photography. It's hard to beat a compact and light device I always have handy.

In my trip to Florida to view a rocket launch from Kennedy Space Center, I took photos with my current smartphone, a Google Pixel 4 XL. Its camera recorded the two rocket launches I ended up viewing, the space facilities and museums I visited, and general travel photography.

How did the 4 XL camera fare?

Distant subjects and rocket launches

Despite having been released almost three years ago, the 4 XL still holds up well.

The camera works best when the subjects fill most of the frame. But my daylight photos at Kennedy Space Center show also good detail of distant vehicles, such as the Crew-4 Falcon 9 rocket at launch complex 39A and the SLS rocket at 39B. The photos bring out also enough detail of the daylight Starlink 4-14 launch, despite the dynamic action and the high tonal range difference between the rocket structure and the bright exhausts.

The 2X optical zoom helped make distant subjects large enough to reveal detail better. However, I wish I had a latest generation flagship device with a more powerful optical zoom to enlarge those subjects a bit more.

Night launches

Where the 4 XL camera fell short is with night photography of dynamic events.

My photos of the Crew-4 night launch didn't record much light to reveal the complex detail and delicate tones of the exhaust plume of the ascending rocket. At that point, the booster was too far and not lit enough to show any detail.

As for the launch itself, from when the rocket engines ignited to when the booster cleared the tower and began ascending, the performance of the 4 XL was similar to that of the newer generation devices the friends who traveled with me used. In my photos, the ascending rocket looks like a saturated blob of light. The tonal range was so high, with the black background of the night sky contrasting with the blinding rocket exhausts, that not even recent smartphones may adequately capture and present it.

Wide-field photography

This travel experience with the 4 XL camera made me change my mind on lenses.

I thought a wide-angle lens wouldn't be useful to me, as I don't do much landscape or people photography, and preferred a lens with optical zoom.

However, by shooting photos at Kennedy Space Center, I realized that, without a wide field of view, it's hard to frame large and close objects in full — or nearly in full — without cropping. A wide field lens would have come in handy, for example, to shoot the Atlantis Space Shuttle or the Saturn V. You can come very close to these vehicles, which is a challenging observation point for framing.

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From April 18 to 28, 2022 I traveled from Italy to the Space Coast, Florida, to view the launch of the Crew-4 space flight from Kennedy Space Center. I was with a group of good friends the Crew-4 crew member and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti invited as her guests.

Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

The odds of this once in a lifetime trip were against me.

A few weeks prior to the departure, my old mom was hospitalized and her condition raised some concerns. Also, the Crew-4 launch date kept slipping due to the delays of the higher priority mission Axiom-1, which made the margin of our stay grow increasingly thinner.

But we made it.

Not only did I join the trip and viewed Samantha's launch, but also made incredible experiences, visited great space facilities and places, and met wonderful people.

Thinking back to the trip, once more I want to go over the major things I saw and experienced.

The Crew-4 launch

Samantha's spectacular night launch on April 27 was the highlight of the trip.

The Falcon 9 rocket blasted off on a clear starry night. At the Banana Creek viewing site we managed to follow the booster in the sky through the second stage burn, and spotted the eerie reentry burn of the first stage heading for a landing on a droneship in the Atlantic ocean.

Meeting Samantha

A few days earlier, on April 21, we had a lot of fun meeting Samantha and her crew less than half a chilometer away from her Falcon 9 rocket on the pad, at launch complex 39A of the Kennedy Space Center. It's the same historic pad where the Apollo missions left for the Moon.

NASA calls the experience “wave across the ditch”.

It's a traditional, intimate outdoor event where the astronauts meet the joyful crowd of their families and friends a few days prior to the launch. The quarantined astronauts remain half a dozen meters away from the guests.

Kennedy Space Center

Touring Kennedy Space Center gave many opportunities to us space geeks.

In those days of April of 2022, the giant SLS rocket of the Artemis I lunar mission was on the pad at launch complex 39B for a wet dress rehearsal test. Our closest view was from pad 39A at the wave across event.

Speaking of giant space stuff, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and nearby area we came up close with the Space Shuttle Atlantis orbiter, a Saturn V rocket, a crawler-transporter vehicle in motion, and the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) we viewed from the press site.

Prior to Samantha's launch, on April 21, we were lucky enough to score a bonus launch. We viewed the daylight launch from complex 40 of a Falcon 9 carrying the 4-14 batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites.

On April 24, the recovered first stage of that Falcon 9 booster was back at Port Canaveral where it had been hoisted by a crane. The following day we had great views of the recovered booster, the payload fairings, the droneship, and a support ship from both the ground and a helicopter ride. Amazing sights.

The Endeavour Dragon capsule of Axiom-1 finally splashed down in the Atlantic ocean on April 25, thus clearing Crew-4 for launch, and was carried to Port Canaveral aboard a support ship. The same day we went to the port for a quick look at the capsule and the ship.

More space places

There were other geeky space places we visited both at Kennedy Space Center, such as the Rocket Garden and the Heroes and Legends museum, and elsewhere. For example, we spent a lot of time at the American Space Museum in Titusville, and briefly peeked at a site near Cocoa where SpaceX did early assembly work on Starship prototypes.

The people

The human side of the trip was as unique and rewarding as the space-related experiences.

We met Samantha and her family at private events; geeked out with other ESA and NASA astronauts; cheered with Samantha's guests at the launch; watched on TV with them and Samantha's family her arrival on the International Space Station; shared meals with friends who live in the area and work in the space program or are space enthusiasts.

Down to earth

Although the trip was unforgettable, we had a poor air travel experience. But we were incredibly lucky and ejoyed a fine weather despite the full Florida spring.

When in October of 2007 I viewed the STS-120 Space Shuttle launch at Kennedy Space Center, as a guest of the crew member and ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli, I hoped I would live a similar experience again.

Fifteen years later, mission accomplished.

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Science journalist Luigi Bignami made a documentary that tells the story of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti through the memories of some of her friends and colleagues. It's a unique resource as it shares little know facts about Samantha's early life and background.

Originally aired in Italy on the eve of Samantha's launch for the Crew-4 space flight, the documentary is now available for streaming: Ad Astra – Ritratto di Samantha Cristoforetti.

The Crew-4 launch was scheduled for April of 2022. In early February, Luigi, knowing I'm friends with Samantha, got in touch with me to ask whether I would have liked to contribute to the documentary with some anecdotes or recollections. I was happy to do so.

I shared the story of when I first met Samantha in 2007 at a convention of an online community of Italian space enthusiasts, and let her know ESA was planning to select a new astronaut group. She applied and was selected.

Samantha invited me to view the Crew-4 launch at Kennedy Space Center, a wonderful and unforgettable adventure.

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I'm back from a trip to view the launch into space of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and her crew aboard the Crew-4 flight to the International Space Station. I'm still processing this once in a lifetime experience, as well as reviewing the thousands of photos and videos I and the friends I traveled with took.

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After blogging daily for over a month, I'm taking a deserved break.

I'm going to travel from Italy to USA to view the launch of my astronaut friend Samantha Cristoforetti at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon capsule of her Crew-4 flight to the International Space Station will blast into space no earlier than April 23, 2022.

There will be so many things to see, stuff to do, and excitement I'm unlikely to post much. But I'll try to share some photos and updates to my @amoroso@mastodon.technology Mastodon profile.

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