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Wow! This video of an Atlas V rocket launch seen from an airplane is just amazing

Flying isn't easy to do these days amid the global pandemic, but one set of airplane passengers got to see a rocket launch from the air last month as an unexpected reward for their efforts.

"My plane happened to be flying by Cape Canaveral during the Atlas V launch yesterday," airline passenger Andy Lin tweeted. He added a short video showing the United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket safely lifting off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, on May 18. In a comment on the tweet, ULA CEO Tony Bruno pronounced the view of the launch "cool.".

The video, recorded with an iPhone X, includes a crew announcement advising the passengers to look out the right side of the plane to view the ongoing launch. This was a long-haul Delta Flight 644, which typically flies Boeing 737-900 passenger jets from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to Cancun, Mexico, according to FlightAware.

Related: Atlas V rocket launches SBIRS Geo-5 missile warning satellite for US Space Force

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the SBIRS Geo Flight 5 missile-warning satellite for the U.S. Space Force lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on May 18, 2021. (Image credit: United Launch Alliance)

So it was pure chance that the Atlas V rocket lifted off at 1:37 p.m. EDT  (1737 GMT), just as the plane was over coastal Florida; luckier still for the Delta passengers, the launch had been delayed by a day due to an issue with the rocket's liquid oxygen system.

"Holy sh*t," a passenger exclaims in the video as the rocket soars over the Atlantic Ocean, following up with "Oh my god" as the Atlas V flies farther, carrying to orbit a missile warning satellite for the U.S. Space Force called SBIRS Geo-5.

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"The captain announced the launch about four minutes before it occurred," Lin told Space.com in an email, recalling the unexpected addition to his vacation. 

"I was mid-nap when I heard the announcement, which added to the absolute surreal quality of the experience for me. He [the flight attendant] also added that we might just miss it due to the plane passing by too quickly, so we were all literally on the edges of our seats, straining our necks towards the rear of the plane to catch a possible glimpse of the launch."

Lin, who had never seen a launch in person, called the experience "one of the most awe-inducing experiences of my life." He added, "I remember sparse and mostly hushed chattering, as if speaking too loudly would interrupt the scene in front of us. The plane was mostly quiet, as I imagine it would be with every single mouth agape, except for myself and the row in front of me, which was audibly giddy with excitement."

Lin is a creative director with The Self-Portrait Project, a visual art and archive endeavor working to drive social change through empowering people. Lin also is a professional photographer who in 2005 earned third prize in a photo contest for National Geographic Traveler portraying a former bonded laborer painting in the coastal western state of Maharashtra in India. 

"Not that I'm an expert at shooting photos out of a plane — or am I?" Lin joked, then he gave some recommendations: "Use two hands on the phone for stability, [and] simultaneously keep an eye on the scene and an eye on the phone screen so you can better anticipate things outside of the camera view which might positively or negatively affect your shot."

He also recommended tapping on the parts of the screen you need to correct the focus, and to be aware of the glare of the airplane window while filming. "I did my best to mitigate this [glare] by keeping the lens as close to the window as possible, at times even touching it," Lin added.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.