Our View of the Launch of STS-126 on November 14, 2008

On November 14, 2008, my wife Mary and I, along with my sister and her husband, Sandy and Steve Oberg, traveled to Cape Canaveral, Florida to watch the launch of STS-126 to the International Space Station. The initial photos below are from NASA to show my friend Don Pettit, who flew on STS-126, some of the activity prior to the flight, and a sample of the type of astrophotography Don hoped to do from the space station during his two week visit.

The actual launch photos were taken by myself and my sister, Sandy, as we viewed the launch from the NASA causeway between Merritt Island and Cape Canaveral. Our viewing site was six miles due south of Launch pad 39A and across the Banana River from Cape Canaveral.

STS126 was special to us because it carried one of my "astro-buddies", Don Pettit, on his second flight to the International Space Station. In addition to duties related to upgrading the space station to house a full time crew of six people, Don had an an ambitious schedule of space photography mapped out where he would try to document such phenomena as aurorae, noctilucent clouds, meteors below him, viewing Iridium satellite flares from orbit, and attempting to view any SOHO sun-grazing comets that may appear while he was in space. These photographic activities were not an actual NASA experiment, but were the product of Don's insatiable curiosity about the the world around him. Don Pettit is a scientist and chemical engineer. He is not a test pilot/fighter jock type of astronaut. His summer job while in college was working on diesel engines and heavy machinery, so Don is mechanicaly inclined and loves to tinker with things. Such adaptability serves him well in space. Thus when he spent five months in space on ISS Expedition 6 in 2002 and 2003, and now two weeks in space on STS-126, he can fix just about any device on the space station. But he also views the earth below and the universe above with inquiring curiosity and the desire to know what makes it all tick. He is just the kind of astronaut NASA needs when we return to the Moon or push on to Mars.


Astronaut and astrophotographer, Don Pettit.
Photo courtesy of NASA
The Space Shuttle Endeavour being moved to Launch Pad 39A in preparation for it's November 14, 2008, launch to the International Space Station.
Photo courtesy of NASA

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The Shuttle Endeavour on Launch Pad 39A in preparation for its launch.
Photo courtesy of NASA

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The crew of STS-126 poses atop the launch platform. Don Pettit is second from the right.
Photo courtesy of NASA

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These two photographs show examples of the photography Don tried to do on STS-126. He took these photos while on Expedition 6 to the ISS in 2002-3.

An unusual meteor captured (center of photo) with a DSLR shows the strange carachteristic of seemingly glowing in the atmosphere at a similar altitude where the station is in orbit. This presents a curious scientific dilema: if the meteor is burning up in the atmosphere at that altitude, why doesn't the space station do the same? Clearly, there is some sort of interesting illusion happening here.

This photo was taken on the night side of Earth with moonlight illuminating the station's solar panel and the clouds below. The clouds are blurred because of the station's orbital motion around earth, but stars remain pinponts because the station was in a fixed attitude relative to the stars. Also visible in the photo are the greenish airglow in the upper atmosphere and a minor aurora display.
Photo courtesy of Don Pettit and NASA

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Another view out the same window on the ISS shows a meteor BELOW the space station at the left of the image. Very few people see meteors UNDER them. Again, the solar panel and clouds are illuminated by moonlight while the clouds are streaked by the station's orbital motion.
Photo courtesy of Don Pettit and NASA

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Our launch viewing area on the NASA causeway, looking north. Within sight of where we were, there busses parked three abreast in 17rows. Carrying 55 people each, that means there were 2800 people in the area to see Endevour lift off. And there were probably more busses that I could not see from my location. People seemed to have an awful lot of the same kind of white folding chair, implying they were probably provided for public use, but by the time we got there, there were no loose ones available. As can be seen, this area is a wide open field next to the Banana River with no shade. It is very advisable for spectators to bring their own folding chairs, mosquito repelant if it is a calm day, and an umbrella if it is a day launch.
Photo courtesy of Sandy Oberg

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While there is no shade at the launch viewing area, there are plenty of portable toilets, as seen to the left, (which fortunately were not in bad shape) and a number of snack bars (like the trailer in the left photo) which sold mostly candy and chips. About 200 yards south of our location, hamburgers were served off Bar-B-Q pits.
Photo courtesy of Sandy Oberg

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About an hour before STS-126 was to liftoff, the Moon rose over the Delta Heavy launch complex due east of our location. Many people used the roof of the late model Mustang parked next to a nearby snack trailer as a camera mount to take time exposures of the science-fiction like scene.

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A view of the Shuttle on Launch Pad 39A as seen through a 300mm lens on a Canon 10D DSLR from six miles away. Although the Shuttle is brightly illuminated by floodlights, the photographic exposure is fairly long for a big telephoto lens. Because I travelled light on an airplane, I took no photo tripod with me. Instead I relied on the strength of numbers by taking a burst of about 30 handheld images in deep twilight, hoping that one of them would be steady enough. One single image was! The apparent size of the Shuttle and external tank as seen from six miles was measured at 15 arcminutes by comparing it to the Moon over the Delta Heavy launch complex.

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This image of liftoff, as well as the time lapse image to the right, are supplied by a gentleman we met on the bus that transported us to the causeway. He only identified him self as "Steve" and I do not where he was from, but he had an impressive telescopic photography rig with him. He exchanged email addresses with my sister so they could trade launch photos..
Photo courtesy of Steve K.
Steve's six-minute time-lapse image of the STS-126 launch shows a number of interesting things. The Shuttle launch site at the left is due north, while the full moon and the Delta Heavy launch site on the horizon at the right are due east. The Shuttle arced over the Atlantic to the northeast of the launch pad to ascend into the proper orbital plane matching the International Space Station. The color of the Shuttle's trail is initially yellow due to the heavy orange flame from the solid rocket boosters. After the boosters burned out and dropped away, the trail is white from the bright bluish glow of the Shuttle's hydrogen-burning main engines. The trail ends about 20 degrees above the horzon where the line of sight to the ascending orbiter was blocked by a band of cirrus clouds.
Photo courtesy of Steve K


As soon as the main engines lit just before liftoff, a huge plume of steam blew out of the launch pad flame trench and obscured the orbiter. A second or so after liftoff, the Shuttle sprang up from behind the cloud and was visible again. This image was taken with a 300mm lens on a Canon D400.
Photo courtesy of Sandy Oberg

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This and the remainder of my images of the Shuttle climbing on the thrust of the two solid rocket boosters were taken with an 80mm lens and Canon 10D.
The apparent length of the flame from the solid boosters from our viewing point was one degree.
A close look at the full-resolution image reveals the orbiter's brightly illuminated vertical rudder protruding to the right at the top of the flames. The Shuttle stack has already rolled halfway around from its launch orientation so it can climb out over the Atlantic with the obiter upsidedown.

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This image is slightly darker because I raised the shutter speed
just in case I had been overexposing the rocket flames.

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Go Endeavour!
Go Don, GO!

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So what could we see during the launch?

Starting 16 seconds before liftoff, we could see the massive acoustic control waterfall under the launch pad. It appeared like a gray fog as 300,000 gallons of water dumped into the launch pad flame trench.

At T minus 15 seconds, the "sparklers" that flooded the base of the orbiter with huge sparks to burn off any excess hydrogen vapors appeared as a bright glow that many thought was main engine ignition.

At T minus 6.5 seconds, the main engines each fired at one-tenth of a second intervals and huge plume of steam burst out of the flame trench, hiding the orbiter.

At T 0, a brilliant orange glow from the solid rocket boosters flared up and backlit the steam plume from the main engines. In binoculars you could see a shock wave radiating away from the Shuttle through the mist and clouds.

The vehicle sprang up from the smoke plume and climbed out rapidly, rolling to the right as it turned around to arc over the Atlantic in the upsidedown position under the orange external tank.

After 30 seconds it was about 45 degrees elevation when the noise reached us. At first, there was the fairly muted sound of main engines igniting, then a low roar for about five seconds. Then there was a noticeable "pop" as the solids lit, followed by a sharp increase in the roaring noise. At this point I could still easily talk to my wife in a normal voice. Once the noise of the Shuttle attaining about 1000 foot altitude reached us, it got noticeably louder, but not so loud that I could not speak to Mary in an elevated voice. There was more acoustic energy than loudness. The sound had the rolling rumble and crackle that is heard on TV. For about 10 seconds it actually shook our loose clothing although it was no louder than hearing a jet take off when close to an airport. About a minute after launch, the noise noticably faded as the Shuttle gained altitude and arced away from us.

By now the Shuttle was essentially climbing directly away from us and we were looking up the twin columns of flame from the solids. From our perspective, we could see the streak of flame was forked, then tapered off into the smoke train. The normal television images do not show this forked flame.

The smoke trail blocked the view of the main engines for a time, but when the trajectory arced over about a minute after liftoff, a brilliant blue diamond-shapped glow became visible as we could now see the glowing nozzles of the three main hydrogen burning engines.

A little over two minutes after launch the Shuttle was far out over the Atlantic when the solid rocket boosters burned out. In binoculars it was easy to see the boosters fall away as their position was marked by a trailing stream of embers that spewed out of each rocket casing. After several seconds, the residual sparks stopped and we could no longer spot the boosters.

From this point on, all that was visible was bright white pinpoint in the sky. The glow from the main engines continued to diminish as the Shuttle flew farther over the Atlantic and arced closer to the horizon. About six minutes after launch, it was hundreds of miles away, but still shining at magnitude -2, or about as brightly as the planet Jupiter that was in the opposite side of the sky.

As the Shuttle dropped to about 20 degrees above the horizon, it went behind a bank of cirrus clouds and disappeared from sight.


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