Amazing Shuttle launch video from an airplane window

By Phil Plait | February 26, 2011 9:23 am

When Discovery thundered into space on Thursday afternoon, I was in an airplane heading to Florida to visit family. I was hoping I might be able to see it, but my timing was off and it was already in orbit before I was close enough to see it.

But not everyone was so unfortunate! YouTube user NeilMonday got a fantastic view:

Set the resolution to 720p for the best view of it. Wow. I’m not sure how far away the plane was from the launch, but I’m guessing it was over 100 km (60 miles). There’s usually a 65 km (40 mile) no-fly zone around the launch area, and I imagine planes keep well back even from that*.

If you want to see a Shuttle go up, you have two more chances; Endeavour in April and Atlantis in June. I’ve seen a launch and it’s amazing, but you can also read what my pal Nicole Garvanarflaguten said about seeing this launch.

If you get a chance to see one of the last two launches, take it.

Tip o’ the nose cone to Stuart at AstronomyBlog.

* I love the Captain’s announcement near the beginning: "Hey folks, the Space Shuttle is going off the right side of the aircraft right now. Those of you on the right side of the aircraft, you can see the Space Shuttle. People on the left side of the aircraft, you can probably see people on the right side of the aircraft looking at the Space Shuttle."


Comments (54)

  1. I thought it was Nicole Googamooglie.
    I was there in 1981(?) for the first launch. Managed to get 2 tickets for the causeway. Frakkin’ awesome. I simply MUST dig up the 16mm film I shot of the launch & get it onto HD video!

  2. Daniel J. Andrews

    The NASA app lists the time the shuttle can be seen from your location as it orbits overhead.

  3. Steven

    Wow that was awesome!

  4. Amanda Gulledge

    Loved this! Great Captain’s comments – agreed. Thanks for sharing. (def helped to change to HD)

  5. T. Miller

    “Folks, the space shuttle is going off the right side of the aircraft right now. Those of you on the right side of the aircraft, you can see the space shuttle. People on the left side of the aircraft, you can probably see people on the right side of the aircraft looking at the space shuttle.”

  6. Don

    C’mon, we all know that’s a contrail…

  7. Ron1

    @5. Don

    Banging my head on the keyboard – don’t … get … them… started. :)

    Been almost a year since we went to florida to watch Discovery’s launch last April, and a night launch to boot. So cool (and BRIGHT!)

    Phil’s right — if you can go, go.

  8. Brian Davis

    We were lucky enough to catch Columbia’s 2nd-to-last launch from the Causeway. Launched just pre-dawn, and the sight of the plume shifting from pre-dawn through the colors of the sunrise into full sun was something I don’t think I could ever forget. The thump-in-the-chest rumble, everything… an amazing, amazing experience. I really hope we can make one of the last two launches.

    I’ll be the one on the beach singing “Witness’s Waltz”, and wondering why, of all the things we need to cut… a sense of adventure and exploration is among them.

  9. Nick L

    I wonder how an Ares V launch would look like from the same vantage point; assuming that it ever gets off the ground in the first place.

  10. Joe

    Even from Titusville (5 mi.? across the water), the launch was awesome.
    Be advised – departing the area by car is an ordeal. Our 2 1/2 hour drive over became a 5 1/2 return.
    It took us 3 hours to travel 28 miles.

  11. Gonçalo Aguiar

    OMG that is not a space shuttle. That is a missile! It is obvious…

    Joking 😀

  12. I got to see STS-26 (the first post-Challenger flight) in person. I recommend it to anyone who has the option to do so.

    I’m old enough to have watched the Apollo missions as a kid, but I never saw a launch in person. I understand the rumbling you feel in your chest from the Shuttle launch is nothing compared to a Saturn V launch.

    Any why didn’t he continue the video a little longer and get the SRB separation?

    (And what do you know? There is audio with it. I had forgotten that I plugged in a set of headphones, and put them aside for a while.)

  13. Obviously faked. There are no stars.

  14. XPT

    Can you imagine you’re able to witness the very last Shuttle launch but you sit on the wrong side of the plane?

  15. barney

    now is the shuttle going straight up and the earth rotating underneath, hence the launch traj looking likes its going to the left or is it actually going to the left

  16. Astro_yyz

    Would’ve sucked to have been on the wrong side of the plane.
    Have seen 2 launches in person from the causeway, and traveled 5 times to Florida to see launches (yep – some scrubs in there too) and even with the scrubs would take a chance to see the launch.
    Every now and then, humans do something REALLY AMAZINGLY COOL.

  17. Seeing one of those two launches is DEFINITELY on my list! Thanks for sharing this. Amazing.

  18. I LOVE those shots of launches from a plane. I don’t fly anywhere near often enough to catch one but it would be fantastic. That’s a great vantage point. I’ve seen many launches from the ground but you never really get a scale of the speed and breadth of the launch from the ground… and watching it on TV they just zoom in on the thing as much as possible.

    I think they should have a plane with some HD cameras up orbiting the launch pad to get some awesome wide pan final launch videos and pictures. I wonder how I could go about suggesting that to someone who could pull it off?

  19. JB of Brisbane

    Full left aileron trim as all the passengers run to the right side of the cabin.

  20. Mary

    Wow!! That is amazing. What a thrill it would have been to be on the plane. It is so fortunate for us this video was captured.

  21. I’m wondering the same thing as @barney. I’d have imagined the shuttle would go straight up – shortest route and all that. So why is it curving like that – is the Earth’s rotation underneath? Or is there just not a lot of steering happening, I imagine with all that fuel and booster rockets etc it wouldn’t steer too well….

  22. Barney,
    The shuttle launch trajectory has a roll and pitch profile that sends it East, just like you see in the video. To gain orbital velocity rockets need to get a relative tangential velocity to the Earth, since orbits are usually near-circular. Thus, going straight up would be inefficient (waste a lot of fuel weight that could be used on payload!).

    More importantly though, Space Shuttle launches are East, as I stated above. The Earth rotates East so the shuttle is actually going in the direction of Earth’s rotation. We do this to use the Earth’s rotation to help gain orbital velocity! For the Space Shuttle to meet up with ISS it needs to get going over 17,000 mph. Since the Earth is already rotating at about 1,000 mph (at the equator anyway) the Shuttle only needs to accelerate an extra 16,000 mph (roughly) to get to orbit! If you wanted to launch West you would need to accelerate an extra 1,000 mph to make up the difference (ie, more wasted fuel!).

    Hope that all makes sense!

    Orbital mechanics is fun!

    – Ben H.
    NASA JSC, Houston, TX

  23. Barney: I was going to basically say the same thing as Ben, except with a lot less math. The bottom line is that if you’re going to launch rockets into orbit, you want to do as close to the equator as possible, so that the Earth actually helps ‘fling’ the craft into space. To put it another way: If your launch facility were located in say, Maine, you’d actually need a lot more energy to get into orbit.
    Plus, by taking off over the ocean, if anything goes wrong, the pieces will fall on fish instead of people.
    And I’m guessing the fish ain’t too thrilled about that.

  24. My heart skipped a beat. It’s awe inspiring to watch the shuttle go from a little blip of light on the ground to disappearing far above an aircraft that’s already high over the clouds. Not until now do you understand the distance a spacecraft has to travel. Wow.

  25. ND

    That’s amazing. I think the video ended right after the boosters separated. That’s usually at 125 seconds. You won’t see a nice plume after that as the shuttle is burning hydrogen.

  26. Paul in Sweden

    Around 2am that night in Sweden my wife pokes me and hands me the phone. My buddy in Florida had taken the day off from work to go down to see the launch first hand. It wasn’t his first rodeo but he was like a little kid describing the wait… and the impact of the sound wave. :)

  27. DLC

    would have been ultra-cool to watch. I wonder how many people book flights in hailing distance of the cape on days when there’s a launch scheduled just in case of that possibility ?

    and… it saddens me to see the orbiter end, with no real replacement on tap within the next 10 years.

  28. Paul in Sweden

    29. DLC Says:
    February 27th, 2011 at 2:03 am
    and… it saddens me to see the orbiter end, with no real replacement on tap within the next 10 years.

    Me too, but when you have Obama, the Pope, the the Arch Aishop of Canterbury, Osama bin laden, hundreds of Church groups throughout the world, creationists, anit-vaxers, teachers unions, the United Nations of dysfunctional governments, NGOs & the delusional anti-science crowd all demanding money for doomsday Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming Cooling(CAGWC) grants & taxpayer and rate payer subsidies —- What do you expect???

    “Barack Obama: Nasa must try to make Muslims ‘feel good’
    The head of the Nasa has said Barack Obama told him to make “reaching out to the Muslim world” one of the space agency’s top priorities.”

    Not for nothing Phil, but your previous post with two tough questions seems to have hit the least common denominator. If those questions did not strike the heart of everyone of your readers I think you would have one of your +100 threads going. You have slapped everybody across the face with reality. Those are two very difficult questions demand thinking & deep reflexion. I applaud you for presenting them(I do not require reminders of why I like you Phil, but if I did that last post would be at the top of the list). Darn Phil, the delete key is all too easy; I type then I delete without posting…. Those questions are rough. +10squard for that post Phil, especially the title

  29. Messier Tidy Upper

    Superluminously different view of a Shuttle launch. Loved it. :-)

    Good to hear the pilot (Captain? Co-pilot?) mention it too – I wonder how many folks would have noticed it if he hadn’t?

    Was that the noise of the Shuttle launch itself we could hear as well or just the aircraft and my imagination?

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    @14. NCC-1701Z : Obviously faked. There are no stars.

    Well, the Shuttle will appear like a star in the sky when it reaches orbit – does that count? 😉

    @15. XPT Says:

    Can you imagine you’re able to witness the very last Shuttle launch but you sit on the wrong side of the plane?

    Aaaaarrrrrggggghhhhhhh!!!! 😮

    I’d move, goshdurnit! I’d go across to the other side of the plane and, yes, I’d beg if need be o get a glimpse. And, no, I wouldn’t care if the seatbelts sign was still on & the flight was experiencing turbulence. I may get arrested and in big trouble but, durnnit, it’d be worth it. ;-)@29. DLC :

    … I wonder how many people book flights in hailing distance of the cape on days when there’s a launch scheduled just in case of that possibility?

    Yes, indeed. Good question – *I* would if I had the money and the time. Wonder how many of them checked to make sure they’d be sitting on the right side to see it! 😉

    … it saddens me to see the orbiter end, with no real replacement on tap within the next 10 years.

    Yes. NASA should keep flying astronauts into space, keep on flying their own rockets and rocketplanes. That the manne dspace program ha sbeen cancelled like this saddens and frustrates and really angers me. The stupidity of not doing this anymore is just … Aaaaaarrrrrrrgggghhhhh! :-(

  31. Messier Tidy Upper

    Although the jet airliner option for veiwing a Shuttle launch is pretty cool, this option :

    would be even more awesome if you could somehow get the job! 😉

    Hmmm.. perhaps the US Airforce should use that as a recruitment idea – join up & get really close to a Shuttle launch with unparalleled access & views! 😉

    Except, it’s too late now really isn’t it? :-(

    PS. This :

    Would be a near rival for the best way to view a Shuttle launch too! 8)

  32. Messier Tidy Upper

    Comment deleted by me. Thought better of it. Too tired, too drunk, too human.

  33. Paul in Sweden

    33. Messier Tidy Upper Says:
    February 27th, 2011 at 6:57 am

    Comment deleted by me. Thought better of it. Too tired, too drunk, too human.

    MTU Skål ta mej fan! :) — (Cheers with gusto)

  34. Ron1

    @24. Ben H.

    You sir, are exactly why I enjoy this blog so much. Talk about straight from the horse’s mouth.



    @35. MTU

    Jeez, wish I had simply done it your way the other day. :) :) :)

  35. Let us take a moment of silence for Shuttle Bat….

    thank you *sniffle*

  36. Really cool. Hard to imagine there are people at the tip of that.

  37. Peter B

    MTU @ #33 said: “Yes. NASA should keep flying astronauts into space, keep on flying their own rockets and rocketplanes. That the manned space program has been cancelled like this saddens and frustrates and really angers me. The stupidity of not doing this anymore is just … Aaaaaarrrrrrrgggghhhhh!”

    But fly into space for what purpose? Just to keep going into orbit? And if not, how much money should American tax payers stump up to go to…where? The Moon? Mars? An asteroid?

    Yes, going into space is an inspirational thing, but it’s a very expensive inspiration.

    Trust me, I’m probably as big a space nut as you, but I think our technology is still too immature to do the really cool things that would justify major expense in space.

    I would have been happy if the Ares rockets and the Orion CEV could be developed in a straightforward manner. But the escalating costs and dragging timetables look disconcertingly too much like engineers who are constantly finding better ways to do things, rather than settling on a good enough design and following it through. The other problem is the awkward one of designing a new suite of boosters in such a way as to make extensive use of pre-existing technologies, and thus preserving the jobs of the people currently in the industry.

    By contrast, I’m impressed by the work of SpaceX. Perhaps the future of space exploration is for NASA to scale back and concentrate on research, and let the privateers do the flying, as was the case with aircraft back in the 1930s to the 1950s.

  38. Little jim

    Around about the one minute mark, either the pilot really opened up the throttle or someone opened a window.

    Is it possible that the sound of the launch could carry that far?

  39. MattF

    I saw Atlantis lift off last May. Just stunning, even from five miles away.

    I wasn’t aware that Congress had set aside the money for the last flight of Atlantis in June. Have they? Or are you just being optimistic, Phil?

  40. Calli Arcale

    Paul in Sweden:
    “Barack Obama: Nasa must try to make Muslims ‘feel good’ ”

    I have gotten so bloody tired of listening to people take this one SINGLE quote and spin it into “NASA’s sole job is now sending money to Muslim nations” or other wild-eyed claims, though often stated in a much more offensive way. Was what Obama said stupid? Yeah, probably. But it was never meant as a policy statement and — more significantly — NASA obviously hasn’t taken it as one.

    Now, NASA is in a singular position when it comes to inspiring people all over the world and giving them something good, noble, and true to look at. Something all humanity can share. In that, it may be our best ambassador. That was the point. But it got leapt on by all the fearmongerers and racists and teabaggers and it’s just been depressing to see how it’s made people cynical about NASA — as if that’s going to actually help convince Congress to give it a clear mission and budget to accomplish it for a change, and then do the really amazing thing of actually allowing NASA to carry it out.

  41. Bouch

    Can someone PLEASE show this to those who think that contrail was a missle launch? After seeing this, there’s no way that helicopter could have tracked a missle for 10+ minutes…

  42. @41 Little Jim

    Based on my experience from a shuttle launch I viewed from KSC and from other launch footage I have watched in my life, you are likely hearing the space shuttle rumble in the video. Those SRBs are loud.

    However, I tried calculating the distance the sound traveled from the beginning of the video to when we start hearing the rumble at a minute and it comes out to between 12 miles to 15 miles (Depending when you assume the launch occurred). This seems far too close to me so I’m a bit confused.

    And for anyone that may suggest it, speed of sound does not change too much between sea level and 40,000 ft (other atmospheric factors cancel out the change) so that cannot be blamed for the discrepancy.

    I once flew over KSC on a flight from North Carolina to Orlando. I got a great view of the VAB and the launch pads and such, so we were definitely within a few miles, but there was no launch that day. I’d like to know what the clear airspace distance is for launch day. Some people above said they think the flight was something like 60 miles away but that seems too far to me.

    Anyone have an ideas?

    – Ben H.
    NASA JSC, Houston, TX

  43. Sarah

    I was on the causeway for STS133, my first and possibly last view of a shuttle launch. It was a very worthwhile trip, but yes a huge effort and exercise in patience with crowds and traffic.

    There is something so poignant about that spark of humanity reaching for the sky. And now I’m going to tear up again.

    I hope we find new ways to reach space. So close, and yet so far…

  44. Sarah

    @Ben H

    Here is the TFR for STS133’s launch:

    Not sure how long it’s going to be around.. there is a 30 and 40 NM ring with differing restrictions ( nada within 30 NM, some restrictions out to 40 NM. )

    I was amused to see you could apparently fly directly over above 18000 feet – which would require an IFR flight plan, which all airline traffic would be using.

  45. Ben H.

    I think that proves the point that the airplane could in fact have been much closer than 30-40 NM since they were likely over 18,000 ft?

    – Ben H.

  46. Nick L

    Leave it to NASA to upstage youtube.

    (Your jaw will drop at the view after the 10 and 28 minute marks and NASA actually put cameras with mics on the SRBs)

  47. Vanessa Chapman

    OMG that was so cool. You were so lucky to be up there to see that! Thanks so much for sharing. Ive just watched the Endeavour final launch on NASA TV as I’m stuck down in Western Australia and it was awesome, but if I win the lottery before Atlantis goes up for the last time, the first thing I’ll be getting is an airplane ticket to Florida! I honestly dont think there is a better man-made sight on this Earth, than the sight of a shuttle launching. Will miss them!

  48. Judy

    It is a amazing site to see , I seen it from a balcony in my old time share condo in 1998 – 99- 2000 the thrust is unreal .

    Back then I filmed it with my full size camcorder

    I would do it in a heartbeat as It is so breathtaking to see launch in person .


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