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Tour space, inside and out

Submitted by Matt Shields / UGC
The shuttle Endeavour's launch at 4:14 a.m. ET Monday creates a false dawn in
this photo, taken by Matt Shields at the Kennedy Space Center's visitor complex.

The night launch of a space shuttle is a wonderful sight. Sadly, it's a sight we may never see again. But the view gets even better when you're in space, and anyone with an Internet connection can take a virtual tour.

Let's start with the liftoff: My first shuttle-watching experience was a night launch back in 1997, when the shuttle Atlantis rocketed up to Russia's Mir space station. I'll never forget that pillar of flame rising into the sky, lighting up the clouds and setting off a wave of rattling sound that took several seconds to reach the press viewing area.

By all accounts, the impression was just as dramatic for those attending Endeavour's launch in person early today. The best views come from remote-controlled cameras set up close to the launch pad, and you'll find plenty of those at Kennedy Space Center's media archive. But regular folks can get some great pictures as well, as you can see from our FirstPerson collection of "Blasts From the Past."

The photo you see above, submitted by Matt Shields, makes it look as if the sun is rising east of the Kennedy Space Center's visitor complex. It's really the shuttle rising at 4:14 a.m., well before dawn. Assuming that NASA holds to its current schedule, this is the last time such a phenomenon will be seen. The four shuttle launches left on NASA's list are all due to take place during daylight hours.

If you're inclined to get into the action for one of those final four, Ben Cooper's Launch Photography Web site provides a fantastic travel guide, plus examples of what you might see. Here's a Q&A that features Cooper's photos and his advice for amateurs. And here's his bottom line when it comes to attending a launch: "Everyone should see one once, and soon it will be too late."

Inside the space station
Fortunately, it's not too late to get in on views from the International Space Station. NASA has begun streaming interior views from the station's laboratories, as well as external views showing our planet below. Click here for additional technical details from NASA - and click here to go directly to the video stream, encoded using Windows Media Player.

Last year, NASA put together a multipart video tour of the space station (including the toilets!). Astronaut Mike Fincke is your guide. "You're getting the straight skinny, the dirty laundry and everything," Fincke says on camera.

If you prefer your tours short and sweet, check out this newly posted, two-minute flythrough of the space station - which features forward and rear-view-mirror views captured by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, accompanied by a jazzy soundtrack.

Once Endeavour's crew installs the Tranquility connecting node and its Cupola observation window, the space station will be 98 percent complete. To get an idea how many steps it's taken to get the orbital outpost into its final form, check out this NASA animation.

NASA via Twitpic
Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi sent down this view of the Amazon River
snaking through Brazil, as seen from the International Space Station.

Looking outside
Of course, the big payoff from spaceflight doesn't come just from building things, but from using those things to achieve greater goals. One of the goals is to learn how to live and work in space. Another is to study processes in zero gravity that could yield rewards back on Earth. And still another is to watch the earth below - not only to enjoy the magnificent view, but also to make scientific observations.

The space station's astronauts have taken more than 450,000 photographs so far, and our brand-new slideshow highlights some of the coolest views. NASA's Human Spaceflight Web site and the Earth Observatory site may be the best-known repositories for orbital imagery, but the prime source would have to be "The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth."

Now that the station's crew members have a direct connection to the Internet, the photos have been coming down like meteors during the Perseids. The guy largely responsible for that is Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who has been posting spectacular snapshots to Twitpic for a couple of weeks now. (Check out NPR's slideshow for the highlights.)

If you think that's something, just wait until the big bay window known as the Cupola is installed. The shuttle era may be fading into the sunset, but the golden era of orbital imagery is just now dawning.

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