“My goal is to create images that help educate people about the space industry, and inspire to learn more about the beauty of space exploration.”
KelbyOne Vice President of Operations, and passionate Rocket Launch photographer, Erik Kuna, is sparking a new curiosity for space news across generations world wide. His capture of NASA’s historic Parker Solar Probe mission to “touch” the sun was applauded by the Delta 4 Rocket builder, United Launch Alliance (ULA), and went viral on Twitter. Over the last fifteen years, Kuna has worked with KelbyOne partners Adobe, Google, Canon and B&H Photo to produce training videos and events to help their customers and clients unlock their full potential via education. Outside of his bustling production schedule, Kuna can be found around NASA, photographing Rocket Launches for SpaceX, ULA, and Orbital ATK, among other launch providers. Kuna sets out to share the beauty of rocket launches and space exploration with the world, and inspire a new generation of innovators.
Congratulations on capturing the most dramatic closeup of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch! How did you approach photographing this moment?
Thank you very much! Prepping for the CRS-16 launch or any launch starts weeks in advance with looking at the lighting and locations we will be shooting, specifically the sun’s position, or moon if it’s a night launch. Plus, we have to study the rocket trajectory to see where it will fly in relativity to our shooting positions. This is extremely important for night streak shots. Then, as we get closer we have to adjust with the weather, based on cloud cover or other weather, that will adjust the lighting. Usually, 24 hours to 12 hours before a launch, we are allowed access to restricted access sites to setup our remote cameras. We usually have one hour to sometimes only 15 minutes to setup and weather/rocket proof our cameras. Once that’s done it’s a waiting game. So many things can delay a launch, for example, moldy rodent food. I’ve had missions scrub 18 seconds before launch, while other launches have been pushed 3 to 4 times, even after we setup our cameras. It takes a lot of dedication sometimes to get these shots. Other times, it all falls into place and goes without a hitch.
What inspired you to start pursuing the exclusive niche of spaceflight photography?
I’ve always had a passion for Photography as well as an interest in Space exploration and scientific innovation. In recent years, that was reignited by the sparks that have been generated by companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin as they push us into rapid reusability and cost effective space travel. Seeing the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster land successfully back in 2015 was the real tipping point for me. I felt like from that moment, I just had to be part of documenting and capturing the beauty and inspiration of spaceflight. I started to focus on documenting the reinvigorated space race, using photography and video to document our baby steps towards the colonization of Mars and beyond. My goal is to create images that help educate people about the space industry, and that inspire to learn more about the beauty of space exploration.
How do you argue for NASA vesting research in Mars explorations?
I think this is the key for people to understand. I’ve had people tell me, Why are we going to Mars or the Moon when we have so many things to deal with here on Earth? Two reasons. First, Humanity is better when we’re exploring, adventuring and discovering. Just think about it, every major advancement comes from us doing just that… And Space, it is the final frontier. Well, maybe not the final, since there’s probably Space beyond Space that we don’t know yet. Second, it’s an insurance policy. If humanity becomes multi-planetary our risk of extinction is reduced to almost nothing. Plus, from those advancements we might even discover how to solve some big problems we’re facing on Earth. It’s exciting and I love documenting history happening right in front of us.
What was your first encounter with the Plotaverse technology?
Actually, our company, KelbyOne worked with a Photography Instructor, Trey Ratcliff, to develop a class specifically on using Plotagraph Pro and the Plotagraph App for our membership community. From there, I really fell in love with the software and what it could do. Since then, I have become a Plotagraph addict. Rocket photography is just made for it. The smoke, fog and fire, mixed with an object frozen in time, that is usually moving past the speed of sound, makes for one interesting scene.
What do you enjoy most about animating your shots with the Plotagraph effect?
I really love how arresting my shots become with Plotaverse. I love seeing that look on people’s faces when they view it on a screen or in their stream. It’s that double take where they first pause to admire the shot for something their eyes are telling them is interesting. Then they realize the image is in motion, but they don’t know how to process it. That’s the real win for me with Plotagraph. When I can enhance the photo just enough to make it play with your mind and look at the Rocket from a different perspective, I feel like I’ve done my job. But, it hasn’t stopped there. I’ve recently pushed it further to see how far I can go. I asked one of my friends and colleague, Scott Kelby, if I could take some of his amazing images and see if they would work Plotagraphed. To my surprise, about 80% of the landscape, wedding and sports photos form his portfolio that I tried worked beautifully when Plotagraphed. So much so, that I can say with all confidence, that if used properly, Plotagraph is a tool that should be in any photographers belt.
What are “5 things we need to know” about NASA’s historic mission to “touch” the Sun?
The Parker Solar Probe mission, which launched August 11, 2018, is one that was dear to me, probably because I got to work with my 8 year old daughter to create an image, but it’s also a first for humanity. Being able to capture the takeoff was huge, not only for the mission, but also for the rocket. It is the largest of the ULA Delta 4 family. The Heavy version features three Booster Cores, mounted together to form a triple-body rocket. The Parker Solar Probe is the first-ever mission to “touch” the outer corona of the sun. The spacecraft, about the size of a small car, is traveling directly into the sun’s atmosphere, about 4 million miles from our star’s surface. It might seem like a massive distance, but it is extremely close compared to the universe. In fact, the journey to the corona of the sun is a mission that will bring the Parker Solar Probe closer to the sun than any spacecraft has before in history. Cool tidbit about the probe: University of Chicago astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who’s 91 years old, is the first living person to have a NASA mission named after him. Rightfully so; he’s had to wait since the 1950s, when Parker first presented the theory, that would revolutionize the study of the sun. Even worse, no one believed him at the time, but he was eventually proven correct and has become an inspiration to generations who have sought to better understand the sun, the center of the universe, and the most important source of energy for life on Earth.
Any details you can reveal about upcoming NASA missions?
I am really jazzed for the SpaceX Demo Mission 1. That is the “big one”. It’s an un-crewed flight test to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft is targeted for Jan. 7, 2019, from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This will be the first un-crewed test flight of the Commercial Crew Program, and will provide data on the performance of the Falcon 9 rocket, Crew Dragon spacecraft, and ground systems, as well as on-orbit, docking and landing operations. The flight test will also provide valuable data toward NASA certifying SpaceX’s crew transportation system for carrying astronauts to and from the space station. This is huge, because it’s the next step towards launching U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle was retired.
After that, there’s a new Falcon Heavy launch “tentatively” scheduled for the beginning of 2019. Until things like the SpaceX BFR Starship, NASA’s SLS, or Blue Origins New Glenn and Shepard come online, the Falcon Heavy remains to be the Rocket of Rockets right now.
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Thank you so much for this inspiring interview!