It amazes me just how close we are to space. The thin blue line that separates us from the blackness of space is so thin that the equivalent drive on a freeway would take mere hours. The energy required to cross that line is so tremendous that only governments (and a few companies) have been able to cross it.
Yet, on many nights, seeing the human presence in space only requires your eyes. The International Space Station can be viewed flying over us with the naked eye, if you know where to look, what to look for, and when to look up.
The where and when depends on the station’s orbit and changes, so a good Internet site like http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings/cities/skywatch.cgi?country=United+States is helpful. From here, you can enter your location and be told of the where and when. Remember that the when will always be around dawn or dusk and the where can be almost anywhere in the sky.
What to look for is an interesting question. If you’ve never seen an ISS flyby, you might not even notice it or might dismiss it as an airplane. The key to differentiating the ISS from other celestial objects is twofold. First, the ISS doesn’t sparkle, blink, or flicker, it’s a steady light heading across the sky. Second, nothing quite has the same speed of movement across the sky. The ISS moves at the same approximately 17,700MPH on each orbit, so its speed in crossing the sky won’t vary. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll know it and will be able to spot it from here on out.
Seeing an ISS flyby is an amazing experience for me because of the amazing skill and technology created and used to get it there. I’ve seen space shuttle launch. Felt the rumble and energy from 6 miles away and I can tell you how much power and thrust is required to get something into space. Looking up and seeing the ISS and its six international crewmembers flying over reminds me of how far we’ve come in the fifty years since man first left our planet.
ISS flybys are also magical because they can spark the imagination. Whether you’re young or old, you can look up and dream of being on board. If you’re my son, you can go so far as to reach out and touch the ISS from your perch here on earth.
If you’ve never seen an ISS flyby, it’s totally worth it. If you’ve seen one, go out and look again, you’ll be happy you did!