spaceSpace and Physics

NASA Photographer's Camera Captures Amazing Final Image As It's Destroyed In Rocket Launch


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

The burned remains of his camera after the fire. Bill Ingalls/NASA

Ever broken a camera before? Maybe you dropped it, or it got soaked. It might be a good story, but it probably doesn’t compare to this NASA photographer.

Bill Ingalls, NASA’s senior photographer, shared an image on Facebook showing the fate of one of his cameras. His Canon DSLR was melted by fire during a rocket launch, in one of the most badass ways to lose a piece of equipment ever.


“Well, one remote cam outside the pad perimeter was found to be a bit toast(y),” Ingalls wrote.

The camera was being used to snap SpaceX’s last launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Tuesday, May 22, which took two new NASA satellites into orbit.

This was the launch.

This was one of the last images snapped by the camera. Bill Ingalls/NASA

It wasn’t the launch itself that destroyed the camera, though. It was actually a small brush fire, caused by the exhaust of the rocket. It was extinguished by fire services, but not before the camera was destroyed.


"The Vandenberg Fire Department put the fire out pretty quickly, but unfortunately my camera got toasted,” Ingalls told

Fortunately the pictures on the camera survived, including one final image showing the moment the flames lapped over it. We can only imagine the camera’s life was flashing before its eyes as it happened.

Here's the final photo taken by the camera. Bill Ingalls/NASA

To take images of launches, Ingalls places his cameras near the launch pad and they operate remotely without human input (this one was about a quarter of a mile away, way too close for people to stand safely).

I spoke to him a few years ago, and he told me the method behind this. For Russian launches, liftoff is “very much like clockwork,” so he just sets up the cameras with a timer and they’re good to go.


For American launches it’s a bit different as the rockets can be delayed for hours. The cameras would run out of battery if left on, so he uses sound sensors to pick up the sound of the rocket firing up, and the camera starts snapping.

“So we use a number of different triggers out there,” he said. “I use one from a friend of mine that’s sound activated. It just basically has a microphone attached that [tells the camera] to start listening for a loud sound [the launch], and as soon as you hear it start firing.”

On this latest launch, the camera did also manage to capture the moment the rocket was lifting off, too, which you can see up the top. So it wasn't all bad news. And Ingalls has now got a pretty awesome piece of launch memorabilia to show to people in the future.


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