March 1, 2011 at 8:29 PM ET
Watching a space shuttle launch from an airplane is a rare thrill, and having a video camera at the ready for the event is rarer still. So I was amazed to see last week's iPhone view of the shuttle Discovery's launch, captured by software developer Neil Monday from a commercial jet leaving Orlando. Turns out I shouldn't have been all that amazed: Canadian photographer JD Howell caught another view of last Thursday's launch with his own iPhone, from a different plane that happened to be passing through nearby airspace.
"I was returning to Toronto from a shoot in Cuba on an Air Canada flight, and awoke just as it was happening," Howell told me in an e-mail. "I started rolling my iPhone and caught two minutes of it before it exited the atmosphere. Talk about timing!"
The fact that this was Discovery's final launch made the experience all the more special for Howell. And as the mission continues, more photographers are turning their cameras skyward and praying for perfect timing.
French astrophotographer Thierry Legault, who's become renowned for his pictures of the International Space Station and space shuttles silhouetted by the sun, snapped a sequence of images showing Discovery's approach to the station on Saturday. Click on the thumbnail at right to watch the whole thing.
"I had to travel as far as Weimar, Germany, to find a clear-enough sky to catch the ISS and Discovery 30 minutes before docking," Legault told SpaceWeather.com. "The station faces near the end of the video as the sun sets on the ISS."
If you want to double your pleasure, check out British photographer Rob Bullen's similarly framed picture of Discovery's approach, which is featured on NASA's website as well as on SpaceWeather.com. Bad Astronomy blogmeister Phil Plait says "it is seriously insane that we can do this." Or is that seriously awesome?
The insanity isn't over quite yet. On Thursday, NASA is due to release launch video captured by cameras mounted on the shuttle's solid-rocket boosters, and photographers will be clicking away again when Discovery undocks from the space station on March 6. Prepare to be wowed ... again.
More pictures with 'wow':
Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about Alan Boyle's book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto."