Blog entry #1.

Part 1

This blog is based upon Wayfarer Media’s recent film trip to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida to film the launch of Orion, America’s newest spacecraft. View the results here.


I was trawling through my Facebook news feed one day in November when I landed on my old college pal Ed Stanton’s status update about the good work he’s been doing since joining NASA 20 years ago, with particular emphasis on the Orion spacecraft. I knew little about this but as I dug deeper I realised a new era of space travel was just beginning, heralded by the imminent test launch of Orion that would be happening in a few weeks time.

I sent Ed a message and he quickly got back to me. I asked him how one would go about filming a rocket launch. He asked me if I was serious and I told him yes, I was, and so he put me in touch with the media people there. I therefore began the rather complex and uncertain process of getting media accreditation at NASA. It was like applying for a visa, bureaucratic and hierarchal, and I quickly learned that a foreign national like myself was quite far down the access chain, as a governmental organisation like NASA favours its own above all else.

To my surprise however my credentials were approved within 10 days of applying and so I began busying myself for the shoot.

I planned a week away in Florida, to arrive two days before the planned launch at 7.05 am on December 4th and sticking around long enough to get some extra footage and cover myself in case of any launch scrubs. I put a call into my great friend and co-conspirator Craig Gebhart, who I have been shooting films on-and-off with for over two decades. He was very much up for coming, and agreed to do so on his own dollar. His father Robert, an ENT surgeon and once a medic in the USAF, was on a military jet during the Apollo 11 landings monitoring the astronauts vital-statistics, and so NASA held extra special cachet within his family. This would be a speculative shoot, not for anyone in particular, just an opportunity to witness and photograph something extraordinary.


Leander and Craig filming in Tanzania in 1994 and South Africa in 2014

This has always been the principal criteria that would bring Craig and I together in a work capacity, and we have been to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro together, lived in a 4×4 metre hide for a month filming crocodiles on a Mexican cenote, and have been precariously surrounded by brown bears in the Alaskan wilderness. Much of the time the shoots were speculative and not always for financial gain. But as life experiences they were second to none and the bond we have from those shoots is unbreakable.

Through hard grafting though we have carved out our own individual careers in documentary filmmaking, and it’s as if all the work we’ve done together was prerequisite coursework for our past hirings.

Enticing other crew prepared to work for free and pay their own way would be challenging under such short notice. To film this effectively would require at least a crew of 3, and so I sent messages to those I thought would most likely sign up. They didn’t, and so the responsibility fell to Craig and I to get the shots and the sounds of the rocket launch between us.

I began to plan out the equipment I would take on the shoot and whittled it down to fit across 6 cases. Filming a rocket launch presented a new challenge but I would treat it like any other wildlife shoot. To get great shots of the launch itself I would need a very long lens, which I have (check!). My Canon FD 150-600mm zoom really is a monster and anyone seeing me filming with it must surely ask themselves if I am overcompensating for diminishing returns in other areas!


Traveling with such a lot of equipment alone is not without its challenges and I knew I would need to sign up for the carnet system to make my passage in and out of the US as hassle free as possible. Basically when bringing professional equipment into a country that requires carnets, you are expected to pay a fee in the region of a few hundred pounds in order to obtain a bundle of paperwork that you need to get rubber stamped each step of your journey to prove that you haven’t flogged your equipment and that you are leaving with the same amount that you have taken in. Without this customs agents will charge a significant percentage fee of the equipment upon importation which becomes a hassle to recoup when you leave. The combination of this, a bargain basement business class ticket on Virgin which allowed me to take 5 out of 6 of my bags as part of my baggage allowance and the clever underground web of baggage conveyor belts that crawl under Orlando airport meant the journey out to Florida was hassle free.

I spent large amounts of energy as a boy trying to find ways of getting out to Orlando as I knew it was the home of Disneyworld and that seemed like the coolest place on the planet when you were 8. But I didn’t appreciate that just down the road was NASA, where they launched all the cool rockets from! Truth be told I wouldn’t dedicate precious holiday time visiting either of these places these days, but to build a film trip around a rocket launch seemed like the perfect excuse to finally get out there.

Drive along its freeways and this region of Florida feels like many other places in the US, with its Chevrons, Marriotts and 7-Elevens, only with alligators and subtropical seas. It’s basically swampland that at one point must have felt impenetrable to explorers arriving on this coast. It’s so wet here it’s a miracle that there as much development as there is; it’s a coastal flood plain that will likely one day suffer the vagaries of climate change as just a few feet of extra sea level would wash away many thousands of homes.


So why exactly did NASA and Disney favor these marshes? For NASA, it was easy to understand as they needed to find an unpopulated region to test their rockets. A coastal site would be preferable as it would mean that any falling debris from exploding rockets would fall on the ocean, offering the agency suitable damage limitation. But why not a desert location? A little Googling tells me that it was in order to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation. This from Wikipedia: “The linear velocity of the Earth’s surface is greatest towards the equator; the relatively southerly location of the cape allows rockets to take advantage of this by launching eastward, in the same direction as the Earth’s rotation.”

Walt Disney needed to find a location for an East Coast version of his popular Californian theme park and the site he chose in Orlando was at the intersection of two great highways, while also having the added advantage of near perfect weather. Interestingly, when he began to research and subsequently purchase large chunks of swampland, he did so very much undercover as if anyone learned of the buyer’s true identity, they would have of course inflated their prices!


NASA and Disney share other common ground: Wernher Von Braun, the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket and arguably the greatest rocket scientist in history, worked closely with Walt Disney during the 1950s before leading NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre, in order to get the public behind NASA’s space ambitions. Together they made three films: Man in Space, Man and the Moon and Mars and Beyond. It’s interesting that, having achieved the milestones by the end of the 1960s that the first two films portrayed, it is only now that Von Braun’s and Disney’s dreams from the third film are starting to become a reality through Orion and other space programs with Martian and deep-space ambitions.

This subject matter would be a major departure from my normal focus as a natural history filmmaker, but this all felt fresh and exciting and somehow in line with the ethos of my company, Wayfarer Media Ltd. Wayfarer is as much about the spirit of adventure and exploration as it is about celebrating the wonders of the natural world. Who could be more adventurous than NASA?

I’d arranged to meet Craig at the car rental desk at Orlando airport, and in true reliable fashion, he was already there, having timed his flight to within minutes of my arrival. The baggage carousel spat out case after case but we’d hired a monster SUV so we had little difficulty getting away from the airport. Got to hand it to the Americans, they sure know how to run a good airport!

The drive from Orlando to our hotel in Titusville would take us via Ed’s house on Merritt Island, and both were short drives to Kennedy Space Centre. It was good to see Ed again after all these years: he looked almost exactly the same as he did in college. I on the other hand didn’t, and so now my New Year’s resolution is to work harder at looking more like I did in my old photos!

It was only when I entered Ed’s home that it became clear just how obsessed he has been with space all his life, culminating in his journey to work for NASA, which included a period of training to become an astronaut that was abandoned due to health issues. The origins of Ed’s passion also became apparent: a proud cabinet revealed an assortment of every kind of Star Wars figurine you could imagine, and whilst I assumed this was for the benefit of Ed’s son, I couldn’t help but feel these were actually Ed’s own toys. There were Star Trek posters on every door, and various ornaments displaying our Alma Mater USC’s logo, mostly connected to its famous football team. Ed seemed to be their number one fan, and a great collector of memorabilia, with little interest in antiques!

1466283_10201895907678779_1931086385912016827_nDuring our catch-up discussions, I had a quick précis of what’s been happening at NASA over the last few decades. The Apollo programme I knew something about, and of course the Space Shuttle, both of which represented remarkable achievements in American space history. But why had the space shuttle been relegated to become an antique in itself? Where did this come from? I assumed this was Obama’s doing, who as a liberal had probably come in and cut the hugely expensive space programme in order to distribute this money across the social sector. But under further investigation I discovered that it was in fact George W. Bush who mothballed the space shuttle, in a speech he made in January 2004:

The shuttle’s chief purpose over the next several years will be to help finish assembly of the International Space Station. In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service.

It was during this speech that he also set out plans to return to the moon and later journey on to Mars, and this is when Orion, previously a component of the Constellation Programme, was born. However, along with building a new rocket and crew capsule, Bush’s other focus was on using robotics to explore space, which as we have seen in recent years has been an extremely successful aspect of NASA’s vision, albeit perhaps a less romantic one.

The new deep-space project has gone through some major transformations, and this was indeed slimmed down by Obama. The Constellation Programme would have seen separate vehicles produced for low orbit and lunar travel (Orion and Altair), as well as different sized boosters for crew and cargo travel (Ares 1 and Ares V, respectively.) Having scrapped it altogether in 2010, Obama kept Orion on to be used as a rescue vehicle for bringing back crews from the ISS in the event of an emergency.

Since then Orion has evolved into a multi-purpose spacecraft, capable of docking with the ISS but also venturing much further into space. In September 2011 details were announced of the Space Launch System (SLS) which will replace the Delta IV heavy rocket which served Orion EFT-1. The Delta IV is not powerful enough to reach the Moon.

The SLS, which recycles the old space shuttle boosters onto a new rocket system, is first due to be tested in 2018.


The Space Launch System. The Orion Space Capsule is second from the top.

It was also Obama’s rather brilliant concept to bolster the burgeoning private sector near-orbit element of the Space Industry — enter Elon Musk (of Pay Pal and Tesla fame) and his company Space X which would focus on taking astronauts to and from the ISS, freeing up more of NASA’s resources to focus on deep space exploration.

It would also mean less reliance on the Russians to get US astronauts up to the International Space Station, an understandable ambition as it presently costs $70m per seat on the Soyuz!

Barack Obama and Elon Musk touring Space X’s facilities in 2010

There has been much talk of Mars during the media hype surrounding Orion’s launch but only a few mentions of the asteroid that they are planning on sending Orion to first. I was surprised to learn details of this mission, which involved bagging up the asteroid and dragging it into the moon’s orbit, at which point it would be landed on and studied. One NASA scientist I was chatting to at a BBQ I attended after Orion’s launch told me that this plan was far-fetched and was likely dreamed up by the marketing department to get the public excited about NASA again!

It did seem that NASA had somewhat lost its identity as an organization since the Space Shuttle was mothballed and Constellation cut, which was why this particular launch was so important in restoring public interest in what many consider to be a flailing agency. During the few days I spent there I did notice that certain places – and people for that matter – looked a little tired, and this can’t have been helped by the fact that when all the cuts were implemented and a large part of the workforce were forced out, the various canteen options were slimmed down to just two; a BBQ grill and a Subway. After a few days of eating on campus, I was tired of them both!

It also seems that one area that hasn’t been properly discussed is the extent that Bush’s plans to return to the moon were perhaps principally motivated by the potential for mining it, as suggested by his 2004 speech:

Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far-lower gravity using far less energy and thus far less cost. Also the moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air. We can use our time on the moon to develop and test new approaches and technologies and systems that will allow us to function in other, more challenging, environments. The moon is a logical step toward further progress and achievement.

Obama however moved the focus away from the moon when he cancelled Constellation, and so it would appear that he does not see us boldly (or greedily) going towards Lunar Industries’ mining of Helium 3 that Duncan Jones depicted in his haunting film Moon.

It will not be until at least the 2030s that NASA astronauts use Orion to go to Mars. It could of course happen quicker with a greater influx of money, but this is unlikely to happen in the short term. At present, of NASA’s $17+bn annual budget, only $4.1bn is ring fenced for space travel and exploration, with at least $1bn of it being reserved for the private sector companies (Space X etc). The remaining $12+bn is spent by NASA on many different non-exploration projects scattered across the US and globally all engaged in aspects of science, research, education, and ongoing support to operation of the International Space Station. (See here for the budget breakdown.)

It would be a brave President who increases NASA’s annual budget in today’s economic climate, but one can’t help but think that if Jeb Bush does run, and is successful in his bid, the Space Coast might well be buzzing again. He was Florida’s Governor after all and it was his brother who had his grand plans reduced by the Obama Administration. But if mining the moon does go ahead, this is more likely to happen with money from the private sector.

On February 10th, 2014, NASA began accepting proposals from private companies who want to launch mining operations on the moon. Buoyed by the success of their relationship with Musk, NASA, it seems, is looking for more business partners!

———End of Part 1———

Please check back soon for Part 2 of this blog, which will focus on the scrubbed launch on December 4th and the rescheduled launch on December 5th.

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