Exclusive Interview: NASA TV reveals production behind SpaceX Launch

Michael Justice and Paul Paul Wizikowski

Paul Wizikowski, Executive Producer and Creative Director of Launch America, and Michael Justice, Kennedy Space Center Senior Producer, speak to Videstream on how they and the team at NASA TV broadcast ‘Launch America’ to the world.

What goes into broadcasting an event such as a space launch? Could you please give an outline of what’s involved.

{Paul} The earliest effort started at the top of this year, around February. Four unique and fully robust television teams were in play coordinating this, the Kennedy Team, the Johnson Space Centre team, the HQ team and Hawthorne California SpaceX, and all of those teams were staffing up to help support this. That’s purely execution day, then you think about all the rehearsals, all of the talent and content creators for all of the segments. Our five hour block of time was filled with a lot of stories, videos and content that had to get pre-produced and vetted and approved before game day. I would argue hundreds of people in each of those areas were at work. All culminating in this final rehearsal and finished piece… that we got to do twice.

“We were perpetually 30 days out for a while, [but] live TV has a way of coming together at the right time.”

{Michael} What threw an extra curve ball was that the launch date was a little bit fluid and that was for a lot of reasons, it’s not abnormal, in fact it’s perfectly normal for a launch date with manned missions to the ISS. There’s a lot of traffic going to the ISS, so there was a lot of negotiations when this would best fit in given the traffic that goes up there, between Russia and other resupply missions, so when we finally settled on the date we probably had maybe a month or six weeks.

{Paul} Yep, we were perpetually 30 days out for a while, we were always in this moment of we’ve got to be more buttoned up than we are. They kept pushing and we kept building and kept adding and kept refining. Live TV has a way of coming together at the right time, when you’re working with the right folks and you put in the time to get it there and we did.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched. © NASA HQ PHOTO

The last manned mission to leave US soil was back in 2011. Did you approach the SpaceX launch with a fresh perspective? What were the main changes?

{Michael} In terms of how the event was stacked and setup, I would say this was a whole new take. There are some things that were similar, if you go back, there are elements that we have to show and that we want to show, such as the suit up, the convoy, this is the important operational stuff. But we did have fresh eyes and the ability to do a fresh take on the broadcast as a whole. For the convoy we used a LiveU camera to follow them along in one section and that put a new take on how we tell that story. We had some options that we didn’t have in 2011, so there are things that we did to make this a more modern show.

“The LiveU camera brings the action closer and shows the movement in a way that we hadn’t seen before. I can remember hearing some audible reactions the first time they saw that of just ‘Wow!’, you really feel the momentum that they are moving towards launch in that shot.”

{Paul} Yes to add to that, from the caravan route you had a lot of great fixed points following the action, it’s a long route to cover, but now we also chose to add drone coverage and we added a chase vehicle, which was inspired by the Tour de France, where you’ve got the cameras besides the bikes as they’re racing down the road. And so for that long stretch you’ve got the LiveU camera that’s following along and that brings the action closer and shows the movement in a way that we hadn’t seen before. I can remember hearing some audible reactions the first time they saw that of just ‘Wow!’, you really feel the momentum that they are moving towards launch in that shot.

{Michael} We also positioned cameras in additional locations that we had never used before, and that was one of the things that was really important to us, we never wanted to lose sight of the astronauts as they’re travelling. We wanted to get some more dynamic movement in certain spots and we were able to execute that. The pace was a little bit quicker compared to before, where it was a little bit more operational. The point of view was, we were telling the story but there was probably a lot of dead air back then, we were watching a lot of things but there was not a lot of talking and we’ve tried to move away from that in the last 3 years. I think the show we ended up having on launch day was fantastic, we had a great blend of storytelling, art direction and technical ability, as well as an outstanding team behind us.

Behind the scenes at Launch America
Behind the scenes at Launch America © Paul Wizikowski

This was a joint venture between NASA and SpaceX with many different teams and elements coming together. How did you combine them into one narrative? And what were the challenges behind that?

{Paul} We were charged with helping to create a uniformed style message for the entire launch and make this something that everybody can share in as one cohesive story, as opposed to a fragmented multifaceted story, where SpaceX would tell a little bit, Kennedy would tell a little bit and Johnson Space Centre would tell a little bit. How do you wrap that up into one thing? That was our challenge.

{Paul} So we set out to create an art direction called Launch America, that was the theme, that was the style, we built an art direction for it and we disseminated it out to everybody, and by everybody I mean comms folks, media folks and guest opps folks, a lot of different teams and all of the centres and SpaceX. We tried to make sure that everybody knew what they were doing and that they were doing it the same way.

{Paul} All of this fed back to Kennedy, which was the formal brain if you will of all of those elements, and Mike was the head of all that, ensuring that everything came together in one cohesive format.

{Michael} From a technical standpoint, we’ve been working with Johnson and SpaceX on our CRS missions, so we have had some experience in communicating with them and working out various bugs and issues that have come up in years past. So we’ve established a good baseline there of working with them over the past couple of years, so that was helpful.

{Michael} But for us it was a lot of making sure that everything worked and helping to tell the story, as Paul said, and do it the best way possible. It’s always a kind of challenge sometimes, the gremlins pop up when you don’t expect them. But we were ready to react to that, we were still able to tell the story, our anchor team was still able to interact even with Covid; we had some plexiglass panels between them so they could see each other and have that interactivity.

“[This] was, by far, the heaviest lift of a show that we have ever done here at NASA.”

{Michael} I have to express my thanks to the teams for coming together on this, the hundreds of people who spent thousands of hours working on this show. It was, by far, the heaviest lift of a show that we have ever done here at NASA. We had a six-hour show for OFT-1 about 5 years ago, but that had some natural slower sections that were not filled with content, and there were no astronauts on board. Having humans in the saddle makes a huge difference!

{Michael} I will also say that Paul did a great job of guiding the ship along the path for many, many months. So kudos to Paul for managing all of that and keeping us on the track, even with the weather and Covid issues, it still all came together.

{Paul} And to add to that, from the outset this broadcast was very much a collaboration between NASA and SpaceX. Emily Shanklin and Stacy Curtin were instrumental in helping shape the creative. We held a weekly call to discuss the Run of Show, the content for various segments and how we would deploy the Launch America art direction. I can’t fully describe how detailed and collaborative they were throughout the process. Where blending the efforts of our respective teams could have been a cause for concern together we were able to build something we were all proud of.

Michael Justice and Paul Paul Wizikowski
Michael Justice (Left) and Paul Wizikowski (Right) © Paul Wizikowski

And as you had previously mentioned, this launch was taking place in the middle of Covid-19, how did you manage to negotiate this? Did it change the way you approached the launch?

{Paul} What’s interesting is that we were actually several months ahead of the social protocols, such as the social distancing guidelines that came out, we were building this show before that was even an issue we had to adhere to.

{Paul} But we knew that people were going to be very eager to participate in this, very eager to be a part of it physically; the last shuttle launch, STS-135 in 2011 was watched by tens of thousands of people live physically, in terms of physical presence, eyeballs watching the rocket launch.

{Paul} The human component hasn’t been one that’s been part of the story in America for the last 9 years. So we knew this was a big deal, we knew this was a moment we’d have a lot of attention and viewership.

{Paul} And then the challenge became suddenly, no one can come, we’re not doing guest opps, we’re not even allowed to be together ourselves, let alone invite people out, so we quickly had to pivot, we knew people wanted to participate, so if not physically, then digitally. And so that’s when we really ramped up our social media desk. We have a great digital team that is very forward leaning in how they interact with people, but in terms of incorporating it into the broadcast, we really try to find ways to help people feel that they are a part of it.

“The digital distribution is whats grown and is where the audience is and we add the extra layer of the ability to interact when they’re there”

{Paul} The digital distribution is whats grown and is where the audience is and we add the extra layer of the ability to interact when they’re there, so we have subject matter experts that can respond to questions live, on YouTube or Facebook, and so it’s great to be able to add that extra level of interaction online.

Watch the SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch

END

Thank you to Paul Wizikowski, Executive Producer and Creative Director of Launch America, and Michael Justice, Kennedy Space Center Senior Producer.

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