June 7, 2020

Spotting Space Launches; Prime Sites for Free Viewing.

I’m always surprised how many everyday (i.e. non-space buffs!) I meet that fail to realize that space shots are visible to millions on almost a monthly basis. It’s almost as if the space program is this exotic thing that happens in strange and remote places, far from the eyes of the general public. But the reality is that it may be easier to spy a launch than you might think, and anyone can easily see the International Space Station or the Space Shuttle with the naked eye while it’s in orbit. There are about a half dozen spaceports worldwide that see at least monthly action, but for this post, we’ll talk about the two most famous; Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center.

Last year, we were able to attend the STS-125 launch at the KSC; prices for general admission currently go for about $38 dollars US. Viewing was from the visitor center complex grounds, and while I wouldn’t deter anyone from the experience, we were still quite some distance away! You won’t see the shuttle sitting on the pad, and it will only be visible seconds after it clears the tree-line. It’s interesting to note that while the mainstream media generally ignores the manned spaceflight program, tickets for launch viewing also tend to sell out fast. In fact, if the quick sellout of tickets for next week’s STS-132 mission are any indication, a vast counter-movement of space enthusiasts exists that isn’t being served by the mass media. In fact, STS-132 viewing tickets appeared on EBay at magnitudes above the sale price hours after the sellout!The good news is you don’t have to sell the car (or a kidney) to see a launch. Several off-site areas exist where you can spy launches. If you find yourself along the Florida space coast or in the Orlando area, I invite you to keep an eye on the sky… we can even spot launches from the backyard of Astroguyz HQ, about 100 miles to the west! What follows are some tips and advice, both official and unofficial, from readers, followers, sources and personal trial and error experiences.

The first and foremost thing you’re going to want is information. When is the next launch? SpaceFlightNow is a daily “must look at” for us; it updates launches and schedules of spaceports worldwide. Keep in mind; there are only three shuttle launches left in the program! Unmanned launches are always cool as well, and look dramatically different in appearance as their payload is generally lighter than the multi-million ton shuttle. Launches out of the Cape also tend to have a more easterly track out to sea, while shuttle launches have to match up with the International Space Station in its 51.6° degree orbit and thus follow a more northeasterly track up the U.S. seaboard. For in-the-field satellite tracking, I point you towards the outstanding stand-alone free-ware resource Orbitron; just remember to update those TLEs occasionally to assure currency. Celestrak is also another ultimate resource for data, and CALsky will even give you custom built e-mail alerts for such events as dockings, solar and lunar transits, and decaying satellites. And don’t forget to follow @Astroguyz on Twitter for the latest launch updates!

The official NASA page lists some areas of interest for off-site viewing: It also mentions that audio transmissions for amateur radio operators are at 146.94 MHz and boaters can tune to Channel 16 VHF-FM for Coast Guard instructions on restricted areas during launch. Keep in mind, boats aren’t allowed north of mile marker 15 on the Banana River, and photography from a moving boat may be tricky, though not impossible.

An interesting site complete with diagramed maps comes to us via Peter Vidani and his Space Shuttle Launch Viewing Recommendations. He notes that Port Canaveral has the optimal viewing locale for launches out of the Cape, but may be used for KSC launches as well. Parrish Park is noted as another prime site, as it is only 12 miles from launch pad 39A. Construction at the Max Brewer Bridge has, however, limited parking. He also notes that while Space View Park is wired up with an audio feed from Mission Control; arrive early, as it gets very crowded!

Veteran launch photographer Ben Cooper also echoes the above, stating that; “Space View Park is definitely a fan favorite, because it has trees and monuments and a pier…a very nice place compared to just being at the side of the road or something. (As for) Tips and tricks…get there early, earlier is always better even if it is too early, you can’t go wrong getting a good spot. Everyone arrives at different times but leaves at once, so expect major traffic jams after the launch or scrub.” Make sure you are also flexible in your viewing plans, as launches can and do frequently scrub. High profile launches, such as last year’s Hubble repair or the final up-and-coming shuttle flight draw the largest crowds, but even a run of the mill telecommunications launch can be interesting… you might even catch something unusual, such as when the Solar Dynamics Observatory “pierced” a solar halo during launch earlier this year! Mr. Cooper’s site also gives an excellent rundown of Titusville viewing areas, as well as examples of his own launch photography.

Generally speaking, a night launch will provide a better contrast against the night sky; I usually shoot a few calibration shots before launch to have some idea of what shutter speeds I can get away with; remember, digital film is cheap. My usual setup is a video camera mounted and running on a tripod and a hand held DSLR, with NASA TV running in the background. Keep in mind that NASA TV does have a time delay; you may well see the shuttle a few seconds before launch is broadcast. Dawn and dusk launches are the ultimate, such as the recent outstanding STS-131 launch. Keep an eye on the sky directly afterwards, as glowing neon clouds may be seen high in the Earth’s atmosphere. These are the results of condensation in the wake of a launch contrail, and can be equally photogenic.

Some photography tricks I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, are as follows;

-          Be ready and flexible for changing light conditions; a night-time launch can quickly turn into daytime conditions. I always shoot on manual, and try to pre-focus on a bright planet or the Moon if available.

-          Know your equipment: this is a basic one that’s often overlooked. Give all gear a through “shakedown” before launch day and make sure all batteries are topped off… in astrophotography, the devil frequently lurks in the details!

-          Scout out a good foreground; scenery can make a good photo great. Such landmarks as the Disney castle, the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge in Ponte Vedra, palm trees, or the Moon add individuality to a shot. Check the azimuth of the launch pad against your viewing position so you know where the launch will be visible before hand; if you use the same sight frequently, note any land marks for future use.

-          Finally, don’t shoot video in the vertical position! I know this from my own experience; I failed to realize during the STS-125 launch that the software wouldn’t “de-rotate” the video the same as stills. Hey we’re big enough to admit our own mistakes.

-          Binocs are handy for sighting booster separations; I’ve seen the SRB detachment from a 100 miles away with our Canon IS 15x45s.

-          And don’t forget those non-photography related issues; be prepared for heat, UV, and bugs in the summer; Florida nights in the winter can be surprisingly chilly. Twitter follower @Dangerbarrow ) suggests packing a lunch, arriving several hours early and viewing from Titusville on the river would a fine way to spend a launch spotting-day.

Off beat viewing suggestions? Here are a few unique ideas that readers have batted our way;

Why not view the launch from a kayak? Adventure Central offers a unique tour viewing from Mosquito Lagoon that gives you an unrestricted and unique vantage point.  While not free, the $32 is a fraction of the KSC viewing price. Thanks to our friend Donna Frose teaching in Quito, Ecuador for sending this one our way!

Florida residents can also write their congress-person and request to view a launch; most elected officials in Florida recognize the value of the space industry and are thrilled to give their constituents a chance to see it in action, up close. Thanks to Ruth Arnold in Miami for bringing this to our attention.

Finally, why not join a NASAtweetup? These media events are raffled off periodically, and provide up-close access to launches and interviews with astronauts. Entry is open to anyone over 18 years of age with a Twitter account; simply follow the NASAtweetup page religiously, as event notifications frequently come and go.

And speaking of which, we here at Astroguyz are T-minus one week until departure for the STS-132 launch and the NASAtweetup! Follow this space as we track Atlantis in its final flight to the International Space Station…we promise we’ll keep the video camera in horizontal mode this time!

Editor’s Note: And for those partaking in a day tour of the KSC, check out these money saving tips from Wise Bread.com!