Twin Stars

station and shuttle

I was lucky the first time. I walked out of my office on Wednesday, and was struck by two incredibly bright stars in the sky in front of me. When I noticed they were moving, I realized what I had accidentally happened across — the International Space Station and the space shuttle Atlantis moving in tandem across the sky. They were the brightest objects in the sky, and were beautiful.

The space station, just a couple of degrees, perhaps, ahead of Atlantis, was the brighter of the two, but I was amazed at how bright the smaller shuttle was as well. Atlantis faded out before the station as they disappeared, and as she did, ISS turned red, something I had never witnessed before.

Last night, the sighting wasn’t luck — I even set an alarm on my phone so that I wouldn’t forget to go look. As a result, I got to see the entire pass, longer and brighter than the one the night before. Once again, they were dazzling. I assume it had to be the angle, but from the ground it looked like they were racing across the sky, with station pulling farther and farther ahead of shuttle as they passed across the sky. The picture above was taken with my iPhone near the end of the pass, as they were already starting to dim. Station is in the center of the picture, with shuttle dinner around 11 o’clock from station. The picture doesn’t do them justice.

Three thoughts came to mind watching them.

— First, that I’m glad that I got to see them again. Successful multiple sightings have been rare for me, with the most notable being the STS/ISS/ATV triple sighting a while back, and with only five flights remaining after this, every opportunity, and every successful sighting, become precious.

— Along those lines, it’s weird to think that, depending on weather and the ground track, last night may be the last time I see Atlantis. She has only one flight left, and it’s entirely possible that next time she won’t pass over while undocked, or that cloud cover will prevent me from being able to see her. I know the end of the shuttle program is coming, but it’s those little realizations that make it more real.

And I’m glad I got to see her again. This year has been a good one for me and Atlantis, OV-104 — I saw her with my own eyes in May when she launched, and then on television when she landed, again in person in October on the pad when I went for the Ares I-X launch, on television for the STS-129 launch, in person as she passed overhead the last couple of nights, and then again on television when she landed this morning.

— Finally, seeing the two of them together is a beautiful sight, to be sure. But far more amazing is to sit and think about what you’re looking at. Two spacecraft, flying separately through orbit after having undocked from one another, carrying a total of 13 people. Two of the most complicated and awesome creations built by mankind, outshining every star in the sky. As I’ve said many times, I’m only a very very very very very very small part of this agency, but moments like those two nights make me very proud to be a part of it at all. We do good work.