… and if you look out the right side window you'll see a rocket launch…

By Phil Plait | January 23, 2011 7:00 am

I fly a lot, and I’ve seen some strange stuff out the window. But I am totally jealous of a user on reddit who goes by the handle time, because he was flying recently and the flight attendant told him to look out the window. And when he did, he saw this:

See that vertical white plume in the background? That’s the vapor trail from Thursday’s launch of a monster Delta IV rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. It was carrying a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office — that is, a spy sat.

How cool would it be to see something like that out your window? He took a series of pictures of the launch, all showing the twisting trail as the rocket took the satellite to orbit.

I’ve seen three rocket launches up close in my life: one was an Delta that happened to go up while I was in Florida, another was the Space Shuttle carrying a camera I worked on up to Hubble, and the very first one I ever saw — get this — was a Saturn V carrying David Scott, James Irwin, and Al Worden to the Moon for Apollo 15. I was a little kid, but it left quite an impression on me. Watching a rocket launch is a visceral thrill, and if you ever get the chance, take it. It’s an amazing experience.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Delta IV, launch, NRO, reddit, rocket

Comments (40)

  1. shawmutt

    Funny, so a REAL rocket launch doesn’t seem to get the same panicked response from the media that a mistaken contrail does…

  2. Messier Tidy Upper

    How cool would it be to see something like that out your window?

    *Very*

    I just wish they were launching major rockets from Woomera today .. Sigh.

    .. the very first one I ever saw — get this — was a Saturn V carrying David Scott, James Irwin, and Al Worden to the Moon for Apollo 15. I was a little kid, but it left quite an impression on me.

    I bet it did. ;-)

    Yegods, how I wish we were launching rockets – with people aboard – to the Moon today – and to Mars and elsewhere also.

    I’ve never seen a rocket launch in person. I hope I get the chance to do so. Doing so is one of my life’s ambitions.

    First one I remember is the very first shuttle – Columbia orbiter – launch attempt+ back when that reuseable spaceplane was *The Future* and the External Tank was painted white, right at the start of the 1980’s.

    Witnessing rocket launches on NASA TV on-line is good and all but to actually *be* there?!?

    Yeah.
    *Want*
    Badly.
    If only.
    Sigh.

    ****************

    + Yes, attempt, it was aborted due to computer glitches. It was wa-aay past my bedtime and I was a small kid and it made a big impression even just on the box, even the build up only without lift-off.

  3. Chief

    I’ve seen three shuttle launches but to see a launch from up in a plane must be something else. I understand that flight restrictions are put in place around the launch areas but imagine being able to fly under the contrail of a launch. I am hoping that the april shuttle launch may go on time as I plan on being near the cape.

    Just viewed this site. Russian rocket launches.

    http://englishrussia.com/index.php/2011/01/22/what-russians-see-out-of-windows/#more-34082

  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    For those who are confused by the Woomera reference :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woomera,_South_Australia#Air_and_Space_Research

    is the link to click. :-)

    Many rockets were tested there right in the north of my home state back in the 1950’s-70’s. Hopefully, one day, more will take flight from there once again.

  5. John EB Good

    Search for – shuttle launch from a plane – on youtube and you’ll get plenty. Some better than others.

    Even though those planes are quite afar (some 60 miles, I’ve read), this gives you a better idea of the speed that kicks this thing out toward space than from the shots we usually get from the ground.

  6. KEA

    Very nice. One of the greatest regrets in life is not having gone to seen at least one of the Apollo launches. :sigh: ‘course, at the time we thought that was just the beginning and not the highpoint of America’s manned space program. :double sigh: Maybe I should plan a trip to China to see them launch men to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

  7. Mark

    Phil, who’d a thunk it? You’re actually raising the credibility of FOX News!

    http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/01/21/betelgeuse-explode-scientists-say/

  8. dangermom

    The photos of that launch made me sigh for the good old days when we lived near Vandenberg, and a rocket might launch any day! And sometimes something special would happen, like the night there were some weird atmospheric conditions and a launch made this weird green glowy thing in the sky and a bunch of people thought it was aliens. Probably the Quagaar warriors…those were the days! :)

  9. Trebuchet

    I saw a Titan launch from Vandenberg in the early 1980’s while I was in Seal Beach, CA, on a temporary work assignment. The launch (not announced in advance as it was an intel satellite) was at twilight and MOST spectacular. Lots of UFO reports, too. The “weird green glowy thing” description seems about right.

    It’s interesting that this launch doesn’t look all that different from the mistakenly identified contrail a while back — it’s easy to see how people could get confused.

    More recently we took a train trip down the coast. The tracks run right through Vandenberg, it was interesting seeing all the launch sites.

  10. Radwaste

    Launches look radically different from the mistaken contrail. As many have already noted, missiles really move. Fast.

    Phil, I’m glad you got to watch a Saturn launch. Lots of people think they’ve seen something big leaving. Nope. Here’s a clue about size!

    I lived on Merritt Island until 1983, and went to school with the kids of the engineers at the Cape. Lotsa neat stuff happening out there!

  11. pete

    I was flying to Orlando once and saw the shuttle launch from the air – there is something really cool about seeing the contrail from a perspective where you can really SEE the height.

  12. SRQHivemind

    I had the fortune of seeing a launch of Discovery once. My dad snagged KSC tickets from a friend. I was ~12 at the time. We were 3 miles from the pad on a rather hazy morning. Barely saw the boosters ignite and watched the STS stack silently climb into the sky.
    Then… WHAM!
    The ground and air shook almost at once as the shock wave hit.

    I regret that I missed seeing a Saturn V launch… and am disappointed that in my lifetime we may never see the likes of it again if certain people have their way.

    They obviously never saw a launch in person :)

  13. Michel

    There is no shadow of the rocket so it must be fake!!1!

  14. Lupine

    [sarcasm]I think it’s just an airliner.[/sarcasm]

  15. TheBlackCat

    A bit off-topic, does anyone know the link for the regular rss or atom feed for this blog? Every link I can find is trying to make me go through feedburner, when I want to avoid feedburner if at all possible.

  16. Austin

    A friend of mine worked for one of the FL Senators and got me on a VIP shuttle launch tour. It was very, very awesome seeing the launch from just 3 miles away.

  17. Rich

    Yeah, it just looks like the daily 1 o’clock to Tokyo, big deal.

    Apollo 15? Kids these days! *I cut History 101 to watch John Glen launch! About half the class did too and boy was the Prof steamed!

  18. time

    Thanks Phil! It was an unexpected treat to catch this sight–certainly not planned. I’ve caught a few launches in person and the aerial viewing experience lacks the chest-ripping thrill you get from physical proximity, but still… very sweet. Not like anyone would need to tell you, but if you get the chance–however remote–avail yourself! GO! Even the small launches are awesome.

    Heh, my first attempt to catch the STS, we got down to T-15 and they called it—-AGH! There was a huge puff of smoke and then NOTHING! So disappointing, but another visit yielded results. Landings are pretty cool too.

    In 1992, I went to Edwards and saw Endeavor come down. It is stunning how fast they fall out of the sky and come to a stop. Good fun.

  19. Jim Atkins

    Seen launches from Vandenberg when I lived in LA as a kid- also saw one from just south of Flagstaff, AZ- was listening to the news on an LA station when they mentioned a rocket was visible. Pulled off at the viewpoint , great view to the west, and saw the rocket! Not bad from 450 miles. Weirdest rocket I ever saw was when I was just a kid, fifth or sixth grade, late sixties. Was walking with my dad and we saw this orange light from behind the San Gabriel Mountains lighting up the high clouds like a ginormous searchlight. Next day my dad found out Lockheed had tested a big solid booster out at Edwards AFB- mounted upside down in a pit, blasting straight up. Too cool!

  20. Paul in Sweden

    I used to love going to the World’s Fair grounds in NYC to marvel at the Saturn V engine displays as a kid. I still remember standing on the roadside with thousands of others to wave at the motorcade of Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong as they sped off to their ticker tape parade after the first moon landing. Those Saturn V engines were freakin’ huge and the Delta IV engines are also. I am still proud of the unmanned missions but there is just something about the manned missions that puts a knot in my chest. Long live our space program & our astronauts especially!

  21. It was carrying a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office — that is, a spy sat.

    That can neither be confirmed or denied. Now, Dr. Plait, please step into this side room, and don’t mind the gentlemen with the latex gloves. They enjoy this less than you will.

    ;)

  22. Dean

    I’ve seen one rocket launch in my life. It was a night-time shuttle launch back in the 90s, and we were out on Cocoa Beach a couple miles off site to watch. No one was quite sure what time or which direction. Then the entire horizon light up orange and up sprang a fireball! It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!

  23. TedY

    On a recent flight to Spokane, I got to see a plane flying past us by in the opposite direction and at a lower altitude than us. Even though I had a camera out, it passed us so quickly I couldn’t react fast enough to snap the shot. FYI, you can take your cameras out once you reach 10,000 feet (at least on Southwest airlines).

  24. Ben

    Contrary to popular belief, there are no unannounced launches from Vandenberg or the Cape or anywhere else in the US. If you are expecting to hear about it by watching the local news or something, then you’re not…but that doesn’t mean they are “unannounced” just because you didn’t know.

    All launches, spy satellites (“intel sats”) and even the missile defense tests out there, are announced publicly.

  25. Jim Atkins

    Ben’s right- they might not announce the exact time or provide a window, but the air and ocean space has to be cleared, so the word has to go out in advance.

  26. Floyd

    I saw John Glenn launch on TV, a Gemini launch, and the first landing on the Moon.

  27. hammy

    I saw Discovery (sts-119) launch directly out my window in a flight from Orlando to New York a few years ago. It is the only launch I have ever seen. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for the rest of the flight.

    pictures:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/markhambly/sets/72157618610485579/

  28. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Floyd : Wow someone here’s even older than I am! ;-)

    Actually, I know that many folks here are older than me incl. the BA, it just doesn’t feel that way sometimes. :-(

    Glenn’s first flight. Man, that would’ve been something to witness even just via the box. The last Saturn V was launched and the final command module returned home the year before I was born.

    @17. Rich :

    Apollo 15? Kids these days! *I cut History 101 to watch John Glen launch! About half the class did too and boy was the Prof steamed!

    Now, history class is, alas, the main place kids these days will learn of Glenn & the others. :-(

    Shame your Prof was steamed – I would’ve thought your Prof would have appreciated the occasion and had the whole class – him or herself included – watch it together. After all Glenn’s flight was making history right in front of y’all!

    Here’s Isaac Asimov’s account of watching the launch of Apollo 17 (The final Lunar mission so far – Cernan, Evans & Schmitt) from the cruise liner SS Statendam :

    “But zero was reached and a cloud of vapour enveloped the rocket. I held my breath and waited for it to rise in sick suspense. It did rise at last and the vast red flower at its tail bloomed. What was surely the most concentrated man-made [sic] light on an enormous scale that the world had ever seen, illuminated the night-bound shores of Florida.

    As I have said briefly in my introduction to chapter 2, the night vanished from horizon to horizon. We, and the ship, and all the world we could see, were suddenly under a dim copper dome of a sky from which the stars had washed out while below us the black sea turned an orange-grey.

    In the deepest silence, the artificial sun that had so changed our immediate world rose higher and higher, and then – forty seconds after ignition – the violent shaking of the air all about the rocket engines made its way across the seven miles of sea that separated us and the shore, and reached us. With the rocket high in the air, we were shaken with a rumbling thunder so that our private and temporary day was accompanied by a private and temporary earthquake.

    Sound and light ebbed majestically as the rocket continued to rise until it was a ruddy blotch in the high sky. The night was falling once more; the stars were coming out, and the sea darkened. In the sky there was a flash as the second stage came loose, and then the rocket was a star among stars; moving, and moving and moving and growing dimmer …

    And in all this, it was useless to try to speak, for there was nothing to say. The words and phrases had not been invented that would serve as an accompaniment to that magnificent leap to the Moon, and I did not try to invent any. Had I the time and the folly and had I not been utterly crushed under sights and sounds so much greater than anything I had ever experienced, I might have tried to apostrophise the world about me and say : Oh, wonder of wonders! Oh, soaring spirit of man that conquers space and reaches indomitably towards the stars …

    But I couldn’t and didn’t, and it was some young man behind me who contributed the spoken accompaniment to the rise of the spaceship.

    With all the magnificent resources of the English language at his command, he chose the phrase that perhaps most intimately expressed his inner workings.

    “Oh, s***”, he said, as his head tilted slowly upward. And then, with his tenor voice rising over all the silent heads on board, he added, “Oh, s**-*-*-*-*-*t!” [ rude word removed -ed.]

    Well, to each his own. I said nothing.”

    – Page 210-211, ‘The Tragedy of the Moon’, Isaac Asimov, Mercury Press, 1972.

    Just thought I’d share that with y’all. If only we could see its like again these many decades on. At the tiome who would’ve guessed we’d still not have gone back and explored and done more? :-(

  29. Mike

    Funnily enough, I’ve got a signed Apollo launch picture by Al Worden. The launch picture is of 11 though =/

  30. RobinPA

    Well… as I read down through the comments, I was going to try to describe seeing the Apollo 17 launch that I witnessed when I was 12, but thanks to Messier’s Asimov quote….nuff said…”oh S**t” indeed!! To bookend my launch experiences, I also was lucky enough to take my son and my father, a NASA veteran from 1961, to see the most recent launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. He is long retired and 78 years old, but NASA treated him right and gave him “VIP” viewing tickets that had us seated on bleachers near the Saturn V exhibit building. From my recollection of the Apollo, the Shuttle was not as loud, as it gets up and goes….it does not loiter, pounding the ground and reaking havoc. Don’t get me wrong, the Shuttle is loud, but not like the Saturn. Asimov’s description of the artificial sun is spot on…I remember briefly turning around during the launch, and you could see clouds and such all the way to the western horizon as if the sun really was coming up. Just unbelievable. As a 12 year old, and as a 50 year old, as I watched both launches, I can’t describe how proud I was of my father and his part in all of this. Way to go, Dad!!

  31. Solitha

    I would desperately love to see the shuttle launch before it’s gone forever. Sadly, there’s no way to pull it off… I can’t keep rescheduling time off from work and airplane tickets with every delay.

    Guess I’m fortunate I got to see a couple of them at Elllington as they hopped back across the country.

  32. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Solitha : I would desperately love to see the shuttle launch before it’s gone forever. Sadly, there’s no way to pull it off…

    Me too. :-(

    Sadly, the closest I’ve come to a shuttle launch is my TV or monitor screen. If only they’d launch them from Woomera instead! ;-)

    Thinking of the upcoming shuttle launch :

    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/main/rss_feed_above_snip_collection_archive_1.html

    Notes the next scheduled Discovery launch attempt is the 24th of February 2011 for the STS-133 mission with Discovery’s rollout to Launch Pad 39A planned for Monday, 31st January 2011.

    With this :

    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/main/index.html

    being the main Shuttle page on NASA’s site & this :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-133

    Giving y’all the wiki-basics on it. :-)

    PS. I had thought it was the one with Gifford’s husband, Commander Mark Kelly, flying but its not – seems that’s STS-134 instead.

  33. Mchl

    Oh yeah? So you’re basing all your opinions about moon hoax on the single fact, that you saw Saturn V launch as a kid??? Let me ask you something mr. Bad Astronomer. How do you even know it was not a dream in the first place??
    [/crazy rant]

  34. #28 MTU:

    “Now, history class is, alas, the main place kids these days will learn of Glenn & the others.”

    I hate to say it, but at least in my country ( UK ), they don’t learn anything about Glenn and the others, full stop. In my experience, most young people today have absolutely zero knowledge of the early space programme, including Apollo.
    I have a younger friend – a pretty intelligent guy in his 30’s – who, when I mentioned them, had honestly never heard of Buzz Aldrin or Yuri Gagarin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ( He had heard of Neil Armstrong, but that was the sum total of his knowledge of the subject. )
    Even back in 1995, when the film Apollo 13 was released, I came across many younger people who knew nothing about the story. Many who watched the film actually didn’t know whether or not the astronauts made it home.

  35. Chas, PE SE

    Feller I knew, construction superintendent, was working on a hotel in Orlando — was on the roof when he saw a Shuttle launch from Kennedy. He saw it go up, then it looked a little funny…
    …it was Challenger.

  36. Wayne on the Plains

    I’ve seen two Delta II’s, one from each coast. Still trying to catch a Shuttle Launch, I’m running out of chances…

  37. Kent Skor

    In the early 90’s, I saw a Shuttle launch from Delta flight. I was flying out of Daytona Beach. We taxied to the end of the runway and just sat there – perfect weather and not another plane in site. Only about 20 on the flight and we started to get annoyed.

    Then the pilot said that the shuttle was taking off in 12 minutes so we were taking off in 9. He said to get on the right side of the plane.

    It was spectacular – really got a sense of the speed at launch.

    Only time I have seen a launch BTW.

  38. Nigel Depledge

    Neil Haggath (34) said:

    Even back in 1995, when the film Apollo 13 was released, I came across many younger people who knew nothing about the story. Many who watched the film actually didn’t know whether or not the astronauts made it home.

    Wow, I guess that would have added to the suspense!

    I had seen a documentary about Apollo 13 in perhaps ’93 or ’94, but prior to that I did not know much about it, other than the fact that 13 never made a moon landing.

  39. How much I envy you !!! From Buenos Aires it’s quite difficult to see the launch of a rochet of any kind (as you can imagine) but, the launch of Apollo 15: OH MAN!!! I have a blog about the Apollo program (in spanish for those who don’t speak English: homenajenasa.blogspot.com). I was finishing primary school at that time and I remember each TV live transmision very well. Kids nowadays think that satelital communications has been there forever, but some of us still remember when you had to wait for the next day’s newspaper to see a bad photo of some event.

  40. ASFalcon13

    “Contrary to popular belief, there are no unannounced launches from Vandenberg or the Cape or anywhere else in the US. If you are expecting to hear about it by watching the local news or something, then you’re not…but that doesn’t mean they are “unannounced” just because you didn’t know.

    All launches, spy satellites (“intel sats”) and even the missile defense tests out there, are announced publicly.”

    Quite publicly. Here, for example:

    http://www.spaceflightnow.com/tracking/index.html

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