Watching the Space Shuttle Launch From a Plane
We were half way through our uneventful flight home from Jamaica yesterday when the pilot came on through the intercom system. "We're just about over Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the space shuttle is set to launch in eight minutes," he announced. "If you watch out the right side of the plane, you may be able to see it."
"Wow! Did you hear that?" I nudged my husband with my elbow. He took his earpiece out for a second, grunted, and went back to watching the seat-back screen in front of him.
My eight-year-old daughter was more interested. She stared out the window, looking desperately for a glimpse of Discovery. "I see it!" she said after a few minutes had passed. Moving closer to her, my heart racing, I looked outside and saw a plane flying parallel to us in the distance. "No, that's just another airplane," I told her.
I wondered if I had heard the pilot wrong. As I glanced around me, I didn't see anyone showing signs of anticipation. My sons and nephew across the aisle busied themselves with their electronics, calmer than I'd seen them all week. People in front of and behind us slept, read, and watched TV. There was a dull silence, as if everyone on board had been lulled into a trance by the steady drone of the engines.
Then, in another minute, my daughter yelled (much louder this time) "There it is!" I craned my neck toward the sky behind the plane and saw the shuttle rise above the layer of clouds and continue its vertical climb, golden fire burning below it. "Oh my God!" I screamed. "That's it!" At this point, the cabin became alive. People from the left side of the plane jumped out of their seats, leaning over strangers, pointing and animatedly discussing the amazing sight we were witnessing 35,000 feet in the air.
The shuttle continued upwards, leaving an intensely clear, bright-white trail of smoke that looked like a puffy, oversized chain of popcorn. We watched as the shuttle instantly disappeared into the atmosphere, leaving only its smoke train behind. Within minutes, the cabin's atmosphere returned to one of quiet malaise.
None of us thought of the tens of thousands of people who stood on the ground at Kennedy Space Center, watching the historic launch. Few on the plane realized that Air Force computer problems almost caused the flight to be aborted. Surely not everyone looking out the little oval windows was aware that after 143 million miles and nearly a year spent in space, this would be the Discovery's last journey.
To the passengers of Jet Blue Flight 780, it was a miraculous moment of wonder that we witnessed as we hurtled through the vast sky on our way home.