On Thursday night, Nature and NASA will collaborate in a painting that will use the skies over the Eastern seaboard as a cosmic canvas. The materials are a nearly full moon, the stars and a streaking space shuttle.
There are countless engineering and safety calculations behind Thursday’s scheduled 9:35 p.m. blastoff, the first night launch in four years. But once the shuttle Discovery’s three main engines light, it’s all about the wow factor.
Viewers of the spectacle report seeing the shuttle’s fiery track as far north as Nova Scotia and as far west as Tampa. It also can be seen on television. But for pure grandeur, you’ve just got to be there.
Take it from former astronaut Jay Apt.
“In some ways it’s sort of like an eclipse in reverse,” Apt said. “It turns night into day. The birds wake up, not just because of the sound. You feel the heat wave.”
When Apt describes the view from inside the shuttle, his voice rises in excitement and his words come faster.
“It just adds one notch to what has to be the greatest aesthetic experience anywhere,” he said. “The experience of launching at night, every sense in your body is happy. It’s incredible. It’s wonderful.”
You don’t have to be strapped in the rocket to appreciate it though.
The shuttle launches in a northeasterly directly from Cape Canaveral, a bit east of the U.S. coastline, shutting its engines off and reaching orbit due east of northern Maine or Newfoundland, according to NASA. Depending on weather and lighting conditions, residents of the U.S. East Coast should be able to see some of the shuttle’s fiery streak.
The moon will be at 91 percent full on Thursday and will rise an hour-and-a-half before launch, said NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham, who will be the voice of NASA describing Discovery’s ascent.
Buckingham foresees “a spectacular launch” that comes close to outshining the moon. “In fact, it will outshine the moon at ignition,” he said.
Late Tuesday, the weather forecast for the launch worsened slightly to only a 60 percent chance of favorable weather. The problem: lingering low clouds.
That may be a mixed blessing. If some clouds stay, but not enough to prevent launch, that adds more beauty, just like clouds around sunset and sunrise, Buckingham said. “Some clouds make it more spectacular.”
Locals are awe-struck too.
“It’s fabulous,” artist Pearl Ollie said. “A night launch, you get the contrast of light and dark obviously. You get the light coming through the sky. It’s a beam of energy and you see the flame and everything.”
Ex-astronaut Jerry Linenger remembered his trip up the elevator on the launch pad to get to the hatch of the shuttle Atlantis in a 1997 nighttime liftoff.
“It’s almost a thing of awe and reverence,” he recalled. “You see a string of car lights snaking away to the viewing area, two-three miles away. It’s just this sort of tranquility up there. You climb into a rocket, which of course is the opposite when this thing takes off.
“It’s just this huge contrast between peace, quiet, the stars above you and sort of a reflective mood versus all of a sudden being inside a rumbling exploding volcano,” he continued. “I think that contrast is what makes a night launch so absolutely incredible.”