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Shuttle launch witnessed from above

Seeing a space shuttle launch from the ground is impressive enough, but the view from above is just as thrilling. Take a look at some out-of-this-world pictures of the shuttle Discovery's final launch.

First, there's this YouTube video of Thursday's liftoff, which software developer Neil Monday shot with his iPhone through the window of a commercial airplane flying out of Florida's Orlando International Airport. A member of the flight crew can be heard on the intercom, telling passengers to look out "the right side of the aircraft" ... and later on, someone jokes, "we don't want to have anybody complain because we were late."

No one's complaining here.

Still more stunning views were captured from an even higher altitude, using an unmanned helium balloon that was festooned with smart phone cameras and other gizmos. The first images were released today, and they're stunning. 

"We are tickled pink. We don't think anyone has ever taken a picture of the shuttle this high," said Keith Cowing, a spokesman for Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which led the Robonaut-1 project with Quest for Stars.


Quest for Stars / Challenger Center

This is a frame grab from a video shot by a GoPro Hero Motorsport on a helium balloon launched to image the shuttle Discovery as it transited the stratosphere. The fogging is due to the fact that the balloon is coming through the troposphere when this picture was taken at 5:05 ET.

The Robonaut-1 balloon was launched from Florida so that it was in position for Discovery's supersonic transit of the stratosphere. The team hoped that the high-tech smart phones would send back real-time views of the launch, but that didn't pan out.

"We were relying on cell phone coverage, and you don't get a lot of that over swamps," Cowing explained. He said that similar experiments carried out in California, where coverage is better, have had better real-time results.

Payload payday
Expecting that the real-time imagery might not work, the experiment was set up with redundancy. The balloon was equipped with six Android smart phones as well as other high-tech cameras — an array of equipment that's worth several thousand dollars.

The payload was recovered in a field just west of Daytona Beach, Fla., near Cody's Corner on Route 11. The built-in redundancy paid off. "These guys are a real combination of storm chasers, barnstormers, and techno-geeks," Cowing said of the team behind Robonaut-1, an effort that was geared toward advancing science education.

Quest for Stars / Challenger Center

The trail of exhaust left behind by the shuttle Discovery begins to dissipate in the atmosphere, as seen in this view from the Robonaut-1 high-altitude balloon. The image was captured using a Motorola Droid X smart phone.

The team released the first of the photos retrieved from the equipment today, but Cowing said this was just the tip of the iceberg. The balloon was at an altitude somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 feet "for the better part of an hour, which means we actually have captured the entire launch sequence and can actually see it heading into space," Cowing noted.

More images will be released in the coming days, and the cream of the crop will be released March 2 at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Orlando.

More launch views
Robonaut-1 proved that regular folks can join the space community with just a few cutting-edge smart phones — devices that are lightweight, have a high-quality camera, and the computing power of desktops — plus some clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration and a little ingenuity. Meanwhile, other enthusiasts were busy capturing images of Discovery's launch from the ground.

Peter Lardizabal

Peter Lardizabal of St. Johns, Fla., took this picture of Discovery's final ascent to space on Thursday from Apollo Beach, 18 miles north of the Kennedy Space Center launch pad.

Photographer Peter Lardizabal, for example, snapped pictures of Discovery's ascent and solid rocket booster separation from Apollo Beach in Canaveral National Seashore Park, about 18 miles north of the launch pad. More of his images are available from Spaceweather.com.

Lardizabal recommended Apollo Beach as a good venue for taking pictures. "It really gives you the best view of the separation. ... The only real problem is, it really, really fills up quick," he said. After Thursday's launch, he said, it took two hours to drive just three miles out of the park.

Shuttle-watchers started showing up a day in advance of Thurday's launch, and the park is likely to become even busier for the final two space shuttle launches, scheduled for April and June.

Lardizabal said another hot spot for shuttle-watching is Lighthouse Point Park, a Florida state park that's also north of the pad. "Viewing the launch from the north end is a special treat," due to the area's perspective on the shuttle's ascent route, he said. "You get to see the ascent of the vehicle from the side."

Are you thinking of taking in one of the last space shuttle launches in history? It's not too early to make your travel plans. The best guide to shuttle launch viewing is by photographer Ben Cooper. For additional advice, consult this NASA viewing guide, and keep an eye on this Web page for tickets from the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex. 

Submitted by Todd Swanson / UGC

Discovery in 2010 in pre-dawn launch. Photo by Todd Swanson/HisImageStudio

So ... are you nostalgic for Discovery yet? After this trip, the shuttle will be heading for a spot at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, and you'll be able to get a close-up look at the world's most traveled spaceship. In the meantime, flip through our album of "Blasts from the Past," and take a look at this shot of Discovery's launch in April 2010, as captured by Todd Swanson of His Image Studio in Charlotte, N.C. Thanks for sharing, Todd!

Update for 10:30 p.m. ET: Neil Monday, the airline passenger who shot the shuttle video on YouTube, told me the story behind the images in an e-mail:

"I am a 25-year-old working as a software developer for the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. On Thursday, I was on my way back to my hometown of Richmond, Va., for my older brother's wedding. The flight was scheduled to take off at 2:25, and if it had been on time, I would have completely missed the launch. I think we took off at around 4:30 headed south, and slowly banked toward the north. Once we leveled out, the shuttle took off.

"I was actually seated on the opposite side of the plane, but luckily the window seat on the right side was open (which was the side the shuttle would be on). I asked the gentleman if I could sit there for a few minutes to film the launch, and he said sure. Once I was done filming, he gave me his contact info so I could show him the video. I had a digital camera with me which would have done a great job recording, but the batteries were dead, so I shot the video on my iPhone. I don't think I knew about the launch until 20 minutes before it happened. It was neat, because we could see the countdown on the TVs in the headrests and then just peek outside the window and see the real thing.

"I remember seeing another video on YouTube of a shuttle launch filmed from an airplane, and I thought it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. Then to actually have the opportunity to see it in real life was absolutely fascinating. I have a feeling that I will be telling the story to my grandkids one day."


Science editor Alan Boyle and msnbc.com contributor John Roach joined forces on this posting. Tip o' the Log to Keith Cowing, who also presides over NASA Watch, SpaceRef, OnOrbit and other space websites.

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