From the Bunker: Video (Part 1 of 2 with Mike Massee)

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 12.22.55 PMThis is the sixth in a series of posts “from the bunker,” interviews with the people behind the scenes at every hot fire and cold flow that takes place at XCOR.

Today we kick-off an interview with XCOR’s Mike Massee, the guy behind the videos captured at every hot fire.

If you have questions or comments, you can ask them right here, or connect with us on Twitter or Facebook.

Bryan Campen: So what do you do at XCOR and specifically on test days? 

Mike Massee: I run media imaging and graphics at XCOR. That includes test documentation, video and the onboard video systems for the Lynx.

On the day of a hot fire, I set up and record multiple channels of video at the test site.  This system both gathers visual documentation for the test as well as provides situational awareness in real time for the crew. I also take still photographs and remote controlled still photographic imagery of rocket engine tests.

BC: You’ve been doing this a while, right? Your particular focus in terms of documentation with film here is on rocket firings and everything surrounding it, probably more than almost anybody in this space. 


Methane Blast – This photo of XCOR’s 5M15 LOX-Methane engine is one of the most popular that Mike has taken. It has been featured in countless magazines and websites and several books. This engine was developed as a lunar ascent module prototype together with ATK and NASA. This photo has been nicknamed “The Death Ray” shot by XCOR personnel.

MM: In terms of sheer quantity we tend to do a lot of tests here because of the reusability of our engines and the frequency at which we test.  Because there are non-toxic propellants, the set up and handling requirements are such are that we have a very rapid turnaround cycle, so I’ve photographed a lot of different engine types over the years and a lot of different tests on each one of those engine types.

I’ve come to specialize in rocket photography and in shock diamond photography, things like that. Some of it is technical photography and some artistic, beautiful stuff.

BC: What was the learning curve like? 

MM: The curve is learning about the dynamic range or brightness of the rocket engine plumes, and how to set the camera to take advantage of that artistically and forensically.  The different rocket engine fuels all produce plumes of varying brightness and color. For example, kerosene is much, much, much, much brighter than anything else we test with. And so, you can play around with that a lot by intentionally underexposing the photo to highlight the plume or in the case of, say, methane and alcohol and hydrogen rocket engine plumes, they’re more visibly dimmer.

BC: So when is the best time to shoot, or how do you work around your circumstances?

MM: It’s much more difficult to get a clear photograph of the plumes in broad daylight. So you have to be kind of creative, shoot at different times of day or highlight the engines and compose them and frame them in different ways so that the plume actually shows up in the photo. There are also issues with high frequency vibrations which affects what shutter speed you use.


The 3E17 RCS engine prototype used N2O and Ethane, storable, non-cryogenic propellants.

BC: I have two questions then. One, how do you set up usually? And what’s the crew looking for in a shot? 

MM: For any given test day there’s typically a default set-up which includes an overview of the stand, and the stand is framed closely and the entire stand in one view, and then there’s a wide overview of the area for situational awareness. Kind of like a security camera. And beyond that, there’s a number of specialty cameras where they can say hey, I need a shot of the pumps on the other side of the stand because we can’t see them in the other shots, or I want a close up of the engine plume, or I want a picture of this particular valve – and then we move a camera out there and there’s power and transmission of that back to the bunker.

So there is a basic setup for most engine tests that’s the same, and then there are any number of specialty cameras that people would like to place in different areas, depending on what we’re looking at. If cameras are available and I want to do it, I place them for artistic shots to use for promotional purposes.


An early run of the Lynx “5K18″ main engine on XCOR’s original “5K” stand (designed to handle engines up to 5,000 lbs of thrust) this photo is taken in bright noon daylight, but underexposed to highlight the luminosity of the plume.

BC: What cameras do you use to shoot, what’s the setup?

MM: A lot of the regular cameras are off the shelf inexpensive HD cameras, but there are a lot of converter boxes and switchers and quad splitters and things that allow us to monitor and record the cameras remotely in real time and routers to put any image on any screen. It’s a little television studio in a box, and that’s something I’ve built up over time. I have a background as a broadcast engineer.

Some of the specialty cameras we have are infrared and high speed. We use infrared cameras to detect hot spots, leaks, and things like that. And high speed cameras for special tests that have some type of phenomena that’s so high frequency that it cannot be caught in a regular frame rate. So, where regular video is 30 or 60 frames per second, the high speed camera can go up to about 10,000 frames per second or more if you sacrifice resolution for frame rate.

Next week: Find out if Mike has ever destroyed equipment during a hot fire.