Partner Series

When NASA launched its InSight Mars lander from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California early Saturday morning (May 5), a thick blanket of fog prevented onlookers from being able to see the Atlas V rocket as it soared into orbit. But the murky weather didn't stop all of InSight's spectators from catching a glimpse of the rocket's ascent. 

Max Fagin, an aerospace engineer for the in-space manufacturing company Made in Space, took his rocket-watching experience to new heights by flying a small personal aircraft above the clouds a few miles north of Vandenberg Air Force Base

Circling the Lompoc City Airport at an altitude of 6,000 feet (1,800 meters), Fagin and three passengers were treated to what was likely the best view anyone could possibly have of InSight's historic launch. [Launch Photos: NASA's InSight Mars Lander Blasts Off on Atlas V Rocket]

Of course, flying an aircraft near a rocket launch can be dangerous, and NASA will not hesitate to abort a launch if a wayward plane enters restricted airspace. 

"We were VERY careful to stay out of Vandenberg's airspace!" Fagin tweeted on Sunday (May 6). "We all work @NASAAmes, so if we had been responsible for a range violation and launch slip, our coworkers would have (rightfully) murdered us."

This photo captured from Mount Wilson in California shows the trail of NASA's Mars InSight lander over Los Angeles after launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5, 2018.
This photo captured from Mount Wilson in California shows the trail of NASA's Mars InSight lander over Los Angeles after launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5, 2018.
Credit: Doug Ellison/NASA

Fagin and his crew may have had the most exciting launch-viewing experience, but they weren't the only ones who managed to get a clear view of the rocket from a higher altitude. 

Doug Ellison, a visualization producer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, captured a stunning long-exposure photograph of the rocket launch from Mount Wilson, a 5,170-foot (1,740 meters) summit southeast of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains, about 190 miles (300 kilometers) away from Vandenberg. 

David McNew, a photographer based in Los Angeles, also traveled to the San Gabriel mountains to get a good view of InSight's launch. In his long-exposure shot, the rocket's trail passes through a thick layer of fog and emerges into the early-morning twilight. 

The Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Mars InSight mission launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, as seen from the San Gabriel Mountains more than 100 miles away.
The Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Mars InSight mission launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, as seen from the San Gabriel Mountains more than 100 miles away.
Credit: David McNew/Getty

Following the launch, Ellison continued to track InSight and the Centaur upper-stage rocket, which separated from InSight about an hour after liftoff. 

InSight is expected to arrive at Mars on Nov. 26, when it will land on the surface and begin to study the planet's interior structure and look for marsquakes.  

It was the first interplanetary mission to lift off from the U.S. West Coast, where dense fog frequently rolls in from the marine layer — a mass of cold, dense air just above the surface of the Pacific Ocean — during summer months.