Observation Log 3/15/09: STS-119 launch!

STS-119 visibility during launch

STS-119 visibility during launch

I’m amazed and excited. A few days ago, I saw a graphic on space.com showing the distances at which the Discovery Shuttle would be visible after its launch. I’d always wondered if launches would be visible if they went up the east coast. Now I know the answer is, “Yes, definitely!”

With all the usual planning, I set up my iPhone to sound alarms at critical times, like when to leave the house, the moment of the launch, the moment the shuttle should become visible, and the approximate time of Main Engine Cut-Off (MECO). I tried a new location with a good southern exposure, which worked great. And my wife came along, making it even more fun.

We each had binoculars trained on the SSW sky when the alarm sounded that something should be visible. I wasn’t sure how high the shuttle would be, so I was scanning a tallish area, alternating between through-the-binos viewing and just looking. I first spotted it with only my eyes, a larger-then-usual, orange light traveling right to left, maybe 7° above the local horizon and rising. Jan saw it too, mainly without her binoculars. I got it in my binoculars immediately, and followed for a few moments. I saw a poof of flame, which I gather was MECO, and the shuttle became faint but still visible with the binos. I kept it in sight, and watched as it performed a series of Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) burns, each one a bright flash of orange light, during the following 30 seconds. By the time I lost it, the shuttle was well to my southeast, far beyond the time I’d expected.

I have always wanted to see a Shuttle launch, especially at night. This is probably the closest I will come. To know that capsule was sitting at Cape Canaveral eight minutes before I watched it reaching orbit is awe-inspiring.

This was a true gift; one of my most treasured sightings which I’ll always remember.

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