Many years ago, when I was at the Noble Planetarium at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, I had the honor and priviledge of interviewing Donald K. (“Deke”) Slayton, one of the original Mercury astronauts. I talked with him at his NASA office in Houston about the US and Soviet Space programs, although he said that it really was not possible to compare them because they were like “apples and oranges.” We also talked about the latest NASA project in the works, which Slayton insisted was a “space truck” for transporting cargo into and back from space. Officially known as the “Space Transportation System” or STS, its vehicles would become the Space Shuttle fleet.
Then several years later, I also had the great good fortune to be present at the very first launch of a manned shuttle, Columbia, on April 12, 1981 at Cape Kennedy. It was, to say the least, awe-inspiring. From just about three miles away from the launch pad, we could see the engines ignite and the great glowing rocket immediately rise, unlike the old Saturn V’s that lumbered slowly off the pad. There was odd silence until about 15 seconds later when the sound waves rushed over us in an intense, rapid-fire buffet that literally rattled your ribcage. The effect was surprising, stunning and certainly unforgettable.
Although I have never witnessed another launch in person, I have observed Shuttles on numerous occasions, in flight, as they passed over Denver. I intend to take every opportunity to see the Shuttle Atlantis during the flight of STS-125, currently scheduled for launch on May 12 on the 5th and final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.
If you have never witnessed a shuttle passage overhead, I urge you to do so at your next opportunity, because soon there will be no more opportunities. The Space Shuttle program is mandated to end on September 30, 2010, less than a year and a half from now. The final Shuttle Mission, STS-134 (Discovery), is scheduled to launch on September 16, 2010. After that, say goodbye to the Space Shuttle program. Barring any unforeseen and unexpected extenstions, Deke Slayton’s “space truck” will fly no more after that.
Observing the Shuttle is easy, but you have to look in the right direction at the right time. You must know where East, West, North and South are, and preferably you should be familiar with altitude and azimuth. Otherwise, all you need are your eyes, but binoculars can be useful. The Shuttle looks like an exceptionally bright star that moves across a typically wide area of the sky within a few minutes at most. Tracking a shuttle in even a small telescope is challenging, so I don’t suggest it unless you are very experienced.
There are several sites to tell you when and where to look from your location, but don’t bother to check until the Shuttle launches. The precise timings and directions depend on exactly when the Shuttle is launched, so wait to check on observing opportunties until after the Shuttle achieves orbit. (Note: the International Space Station [ISS] of course stays in orbit, so you can check on observing opportunities for it at any time.)
For observing times and directions, check out details from NASA at this page for the U.S.:
and here for Canada:
Elsewhere, you can still find out the possibility of observing the space shuttle and/or ISS here:
Say “goodbye” before it is too late!
Larry Sessions has written many favorite posts in EarthSky's Tonight area. He's a former planetarium director in Little Rock, Fort Worth and Denver and an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He's a longtime member of NASA's Solar System Ambassadors program. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including Space.com, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Rolling Stone. His small book on world star lore, Constellations, was published by Running Press.