I'm more and more convinced that I would choose to have my flight at night or twilight for a number of reasons. It would be nice to get the flight during a rare or beautiful celestial event - say, a lunar eclipse or a planetary conjunction. A comet would go from being faint and washed-out by the atmosphere, to being sharp and colorful in space. If you don't mind having slightly more pea-sized bullets whizzing around you at orbital velocities than usual, a meteor shower would go from being above you to all around you to below you. Same with the aurora. Another interesting phenomenon would be to aim near the space shuttle or ISS as it passes over - it would go from a bright dot to a detailed set of shapes as you get closer. Stars and planets would become brighter, more colorful, and more numerous. Bring a pair of binoculars along to scope out Jupiter's moons, or our moon, or maybe even large man-made satellites. Looking back at Earth, you would want to get a sense of the scope of the view below you. From 100 km up, things like individual mountains and even medium-sized mountain ranges will not be terribly spectacular unless they are lone, massive peaks or they delineate biomes - you are looking for a place where there are very obvious color and pattern differences between different geological areas over a greater-than-human scale. To illustrate with a few ideas - imagine taking off from Aspen Colorado. During the first part of the flight, you are surrounded by snow-capped mountains. As you get up to, say, 100,000 feet, the individual mountains become distinct ranges. The sharp delineation of front range with the prairie is visible, as well as the string of cities from Cheyenne down to Pueblo. On the other side, the land gets brown and cut by deep canyons. Another illustration would be Kiruna in Sweden. You would launch from a deep-green and rolling boreal forest. As you rise the mountains and fjords of the Norwegian coast would come into view, and you would have a unique view of three oceans - North Atlantic, Baltic Sea, and Arctic. The tundra and pack ice in and around Lappland would be visible too near the top. A related concept is fractal phenomena. The advantage of these is that you not only have large scale features, but you pass through similar small-scale features on the way, in a nice progression that would be very good at getting across a sense of the distance travelled. This is the kind of thing you get when you go up in an airplane, where you go from seeing details of the front doors of houses, to lights in individual windows, to more abstract and linearized blocks and neighborhood patterns. We experience these in a plane, but only one or two scale transitions; whereas suborbital hops might see 3 or 4. One thing I can think of is taking off from the shores of a bay in Wisconsin or Michigan. As you go up, the bay becomes a sea, and then the sea becomes a lake, and by the top you can see parts of all 5 great lakes and all the cities and farmlands and forests around them. Highways and cities at night are something we experience from airliners, but you might see Cairo out the right window and Alexandria shining off the clouds to the left - imagine if the entire Nile Delta became a globular lump of white light (at night) or deep green (during the day). Busy freeways would go from the airliner level of seeing individual cars, to impossibly thin sinews of white and red light, and maybe to nothing. Downtowns of large cities would resolve from 3D pop-outs to 2D flat photos to closer stippling of lights to higher intensity white in a blob. You would also see subtle changes looking up into the black sky. Major airplane routes would be visible as relatively quick-moving strings of lights. Rocket launches would be absolutely spectacular from a suborbital spaceship - White Knight Two, for example, could loiter outside restricted airspace in Western Florida, and release SpaceShipTwo as the Space Shuttle's ignition started.
Light angles could also make common phenomena take on a new quality. I imagine taking off from east Florida in the afternoon, and seeing a long streak of reflected sunlight, like you see sitting on a dock, only this streak would stretch over Lake Okeechobee, through the entire Everglades mangrove swamps, and past the Keys. The full moon would create a similar vision, and it would also work at night, only reflecting off a solid layer of clouds instead of water. Sundogs might get clipped in half if the sun angle was low. And passing through more atmosphere would make the sunset and sunrise look like a bloody yolk on the horizon. I would personally book my flight just after sunset or before sunrise - you would get to see the sun go up and then down again during the flight. I think this would be enhanced significantly if the sun was over the ocean, or perhaps over a tall mountain range. You could also see the day-night terminator, and maybe even see sunbeams from above.
Finally, atmospheric phenomena are something that most of us exist in, rather than observe. Flying through a North Sea storm is pretty drab, but flying above it - where you can see the comma-shaped frontal boundaries - would be spectacular. This speaks well for Scotland, Seattle, Kodiak Island, Kiruna, and so on. The logistics would be tougher, but I can imagine that it would be possible with air launch or point to point to start the boost phase on the outskirts of a hurricane, fly over the rain bands and the eye, and land on the other side. Noctilucent clouds near sunset would look like ghosts over the void from above. Thunderstorm fronts are one thing Oklahoma has that are probably just as spectacular from space as they are from Earth, but in different ways. Rating the venues
The horizon is at the following distance from various altitudes. A participant can expect to see details on the ground at maybe half this distance during the day, but city lights, mountains, and atmospheric phenomena might even be visible slightly over the horizon due to the light bending and the altitude.
65 km (XCOR's Lynx MkI) : ~900 km
100 km (X Prize definition) : ~1100 km
150 km (probably the upper limit on SpaceShipTwo's possible range) : 1400 km
250 km (many sounding rockets get this high, also the lowest orbits stable over the period of months, so some satellites are around here) : ~1800 km
1000 km (really powerfull sounding rockets; this is nearing the Van Allen belts so it is probably close to the limit for suborbital tourism): ~3700 km
All these descriptions assume the 100km altitude unless otherwise noted.
Oklahoma Spaceport, Oklahoma, USA:
Celestial: nothing special
Geography: very little until the very crest of the flight. Mostly it's just farmland, but the Gulf of Mexico and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico are visible above about 50 km. The problem is that things on the far horizon are very blurred by the atmosphere, so that most of the good stuff will be hard to see. No major lakes, and the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are far enough away that participants won't be able to make out their traces.
Man-made: Dallas should be clear even during the day. Other cities visible at night include Houston, San Antonio, Denver/Front Range, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans depending on peak altitude. Oil rigs and ships in the Gulf of Mexico.
Lighting effects: Sunsets behind thunderstorms and/or the distant Rocky mountains; maybe a distant reflection off the Gulf of Mexico a few days a year
Atmospheric: There is a lot of weather in Oklahoma. The snow line will probably be somewhere within the view during most of the winter. Strong cold fronts will be very interesting, because participants could see a full 2000-km sweep of storms, and during the warmer months these will usually included major thunderstorms. A more rare possibility is a hurrican or tropical storm in the Gulf - for instance, there would have been a day or so window for viewing the structure of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita before their weather and winds affected the spaceport itself.
Verdict: C-. This is about as pedestrian as spaceports go. Most of the interesting stuff on the ground is near the horizon at the peak, when you'll want to be looking up. Go when there is a hurricane in the northern Gulf or a strong cold front on the plains. Try to get a night or twilight flight.
Spaceport Florida, USA: (also applies to nearby Cecil Field)
Celestial: nothing special
Geography: Lots, and it just keeps getting better as you go up. Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades are interesting from an airliner, and it will be interesting from a spaceplane. Florida is a peninsula, so you would see two oceans (GoM and Atlantic) from basically airliner level up. As you went up, the Bahamas and Cuba would loom large. You may be able to make out the continental shelf to the east. Near the peak, your view would include the Mississippi Delta, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, most or all of Cuba, the Cayman Islands, and the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. The Appalachians probably wouldn't be tall enough to see their relief but you will probably see a change to darker greens from the farmland across most of Georgia.
Man-made: Nearby cities include Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, Havana, and Nassau. You might also glimpse lights of New Orleans, Atlanta, Nashville, Kingston, and Cancun near the horizon. Orlando airport is one of the busiest in the world, as are shipping lanes around the Straits of Havana. And of course, there are the regular orbital launches from Cape Canaveral.
Lighting effects: You can't go wrong with either sunset or sunrise - either way it will happen over an ocean. The afformentioned reflection of light in mangroves and swamps should be visible if the sun is at the right angle.
Atmospheric: Thunderstorms hit the sunshine state almost every afternoon in the summer. In the fall, hurricanes are a common occurence, and many track south or east so that the launch and glideback might be reasonably safe.
Verdict: A-. It lacks a lot of biomes and ground relief, but it more than makes up for it with water, islands, weather, and people. Any flight from Florida will be spectacular, night, day, or twilight. If you can catch a tropical storm, great; otherwise just aim south and watch the Caribbean unfold.
Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazahkstan:
Celestial: Baikonur is located at 45 N latitude, so there is a very slim possibility of auroras.
Geography: The only interesting feature within the clear-viewing area is the Aral Sea, which is visible from about 10km up. The Syr Darya valley is heavy agricultural green among the golden steppe. Further away, near the very peak of the flight, the Caspian Sea will fill much of the western horizon, and the 5000-meter Tien Shan and Hindu Kush mountains the southeastern. North and south are pretty boring, until about 500 km height when the Bay of Bengal, Black Sea, and Persian Gulf become visible.
Man-made: The area is sparsely populated. Smallish cities like Astana and Tashkent will be visible at night. Rocket launches from Baikonur occur regularly.
Lighting effects: Takeoff well before sunrise will give a sunrise and sunset over the high mountains to the east, and well after sunset will give a sunrise and sunset over the Caspian Sea. The relative flatness and monotony of the land should make the day-night terminator quite clear. Bring sunglasses in the winter, because the area is probably covered in snow.
Atmospheric: Not much weather as far as I can tell. There are probably thunderstorms in the summer, but due to the location in the middle of Asia the area is quite dry.
Verdict: D. Appears to be the only place on Earth more boring than Oklahoma.
Mojave Air & Space Port, California, USA: (also applies to nearby California Spaceport)
Celestial: nothing special.
Geography: Take your pick, the area has a little of everthing. Almost from the start the Pacific Ocean comes into view around Malibu, and then expands to show the coastline up Big Sur and Cape Mendocino, all the way to Oregon and down to the Gulf of California and Baja California. The beautiful and mountainous Channel Islands will stand out sharply in the water, being only a couple hundred km away. High mountain ranges virtually cover the view in the other three directions, including the High Sierra only 200 km away, and they vary from bone-dry and brown to snow-capped and deep green. The giant glaciated volcano Mt. Shasta should be visible for the top half of the flight or so. The land patterns and biomes are also extremely varied. The Central valley is flat and delineated agricultural land, the desert below is brown with isolated mountains, the Sierra Nevada are cut by dozens of deep granite canyons, and the desert ranges to the south are scrubby but rise suddenly. Lake Tahoe is about 500 km away (visible at 20 km altitude), the Salton Sea, Lake Mead, and the Grand Canyon of the Colorado are in spitting distance, and the San Andreas fault system should be readily apparent from early on in the flight. Winter views will be more varied, because the mountains will be covered in white, and the coastal areas will be much greener than in the summer.
Man-made: Mojave wins again in this area. Several major cities are quite close, starting with Los Angeles. LA will be visible almost from the get-go, during the day or at night. It is close enough that you can make out individual buildings early in the flight, and so expansive and well-delineated by freeways and blocks that the fractal effect will be unlike just about anything, anywhere, especially at night. Other tantalizing possibilities are Las Vegas - the strip casinos should stand out brightly well into space, notably the beam from the Luxor. San Francisco will be no less impressive. Its footprint is almost as large as LA's, and the bridges and islands in the Bay will make it unmistakable. Other cities in the horizon are San Diego, Tijuana, Phoenix, Tucson, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and Reno. If you go a little higher (225 km), you get Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and all of Baja California down to the tip. If you have a spare minute, you can try to find the California Aqueduct, or trace the headlights of the 5 freeway up the Central Valley, pick out Hoover Dam, or look for the night skiing runs at Big Bear and Mountain High. I don't want to jam this thing too full, but I would be remiss not to also mention the huge military installations and airports at Edwards, and China Lake; some oft the busiest ports in the world at Long Beach, San Pedro, and San Diego, the oil rigs off Santa Barbara, and the space launches from Vandenberg.
Lighting effects: Pacific sunsets are outstanding, and by taking off just after sunset you can be one of the few people who can say they saw the sun rise over the California coast.
Atmospheric: California is known for its clear weather, and that is mostly true. However, winter storms off the Pacific can be fierce, and they usually have the classical highly-occluded comma shape typical of temperate storms. Fog also often socks in the coast, leaving a flat blanked of white over the ocean that is sometimes only a few km wide - it is especially beautiful from an airplane when the full moon is out over the ocean. In the Bay Area, fog pours through the Golden Gate and evaporates, often leaving half the city covered by underlit clouds that look like a frozen explosions, and bridges piers that seem to float on smoke. Many years in the summer months a monsoon develops over Arizona, forming massive isolated thunderheads.
Verdict: A+. Mojave sets the bar for everywhere else. Pretty much any time you go you will be overwhelmed, but try for twilight to see the sun rise and set over the Pacific, and the lights of LA blink to life.
Spaceport Sheboygan, Wisconsin, USA:
Celestial: Sheboygan is at 43 N latitude, and it is on the magnetic pole side of the planet, so you might catch an aurora if you are lucky.
Geography: The American midwest has a reputation for being rather dull, but there is plenty to keep you occupied for your 5-10 minutes of flight in the area. First, you are launching from an inland sea (Lake Michigan). Throughout the climb, all 5 of the Great Lakes gradually become visible, and you might even see parts of James Bay, Lake Winnipeg, and the Atlantic Ocean off New Jersey if you go a little higher than 100 km. The upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers are almost certainly close enough to see on at least part of the trip, and you might even see Niagara Falls lit up at night. The biomes are pretty standard and monotonous farm and forest, and there are no mountains to speak of within view. Wisconsin, however, has an ace in the hole: winter. During winter, most of the area is covered in snow, and the lakes ice up. This offers a slew of possibilities. If you go during an advancing blizzard, you might see vast swaths of white and green, with a dynamic weather system - maybe even thunderheads - in between. Go during spring to see the lakes at various stages of ice melt and breakup. Fall foliage would be writ large, with macro gradations from brown in the north to warm colors in the middle to green in the south.
Man-made: As you lift off looking south, you get the Russian doll/Murderhorn effect as cities get bigger, from Sheboygan to Milwaukee to Chicago. The opportunity to "see your house" is very good, if you live in any of a couple dozen cities: Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Toronto, London (Ontario), Rochester, Lexington, Nashville, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Des Moines, Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Sudbury. The horizon to the east will be even brighter at night, the Megalopolis from Richmond up to New York City is just at the edge of your vision, as is Albany, Syracuse, Ottowa, and Montreal. Chicago is one of the busiest airline crossroads in the world, and there is a great deal of shipping in the Great Lakes. It may be possible to pick out individual landmarks like the Sears Tower and Mackinac Bridge during at least part of the trip.
Lighting effects: Reflection off one, two, or even three or four of the Great Lakes around sunrise, or full moon.
Atmospheric: All the weather for Oklahoma applies here as well: nasty thunder storms and sharp cold fronts.
Verdict: B. It lacks relief and variety, but the Great Lakes make it more than just a city finder trip. Go during a low full moon on a cold clear night, when the lakes and the countryside are covered in snow and ice, for a surreal and breathtaking view that will change the way you think about the Midwest forever.
Kiruna Spaceport, Sweden
Celestial: Kiruna's biggest advantage is its latitude of 67 N. This means aurora borealis is fairly common. Also, since it is far away from population centers and above the Arctic Circle, there is close to zero light pollution.
Geography: You get water on all sides, with the Arctic Ocean to the north, North Atlantic the the west, and Baltic Sea to the South. There will also be a great view of the Norwegian coast, with its rugged mountains and long fjords. On the northern horizon, higher launches might see Svalbard, Novaya Zemlya, or even Iceland and Greenland.
Man-made: Not much. Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Oslo might shine a dimly on the horizon near the apex of the flight, as well as some of the northmost North Sea rigs.
Lighting effects: Midnight sun is an interesting possibility - in spring and fall, one can take off in midnight twilight, watch the sun rise brilliantly to the north over the pack ice in the Arctic Ocean, and then descend back down. Sundogs from ice crystal suspended in the atmosphere.
Atmospheric: North Atlantic storm fronts and arctic cold fronts.
Verdict: B-. It would be a very unique experience, but if you are planning to only do this once, you might want more variety. Also, it's a bit of a crap shoot - you might see the aurora, but probably not. You might see the arctic pack ice, but chances are it will be covered in clouds along with everything else. Go in late spring for the iceberg season and the midnight sunrise, or else a full moon flight during the winter.
Kodiak Spaceport, Alaska, USA:
Celestial: Auroras, low light pollution
Geography: First off, the launch complex is on an large, mountainous, wilderness-covered island. The Aleutian, Alaska, St Elias, and Chugach mountain ranges are all within view, and they all have glacier-covered mountains well over 3000m tall. The south coast of Alaska is sprinkled with islands and peninsulas, and you can see from Juneau all the way to Nome and Unalaska Island. Dozens of volcanos along the Aleutian Archipelago and up near to Anchorage would be visible, many of them active and venting steam and gas clouds. You would be able to see North all the way up to the tundra of the Brooks Range, and the Yukon River and Delta may be visible as well. Icebergs and pack ice in the Bering Sea.
Man-made: Not much. There is a lot of shipping from Valdez and Anchorage, and Anchorage and Fairbanks are large enough to be more than just points from space, but that is about it.
Lighting effects: Midnite sunrise would be a possibility throughout most of the winter. Reflections off the ocean, especially if it was looking down the Aleutian chain, would be impressive.
Atmospheric: Sundogs, and auroras. The Gulf of Alaska is one of the stormiest places on Earth, so it's a pretty good bet that you can see a nice cyclonic storm spinning up, with tall mountains rising out of the clouds.
Verdict: B. Kodiak has similar strengths and weaknesses to Kiruna, but the with a more varied and majestic landscape.
Hawaii Spaceport, location TBD, USA
Celestial: nothing special, but there is probably less light pollution than most places even with Oahu.
Geography: At first check it seems like a slam dunk because it's Hawaii, but at apogee your view will be about 99.9% featureless water. That said, the islands are probably beautiful from any altitude. The volcanoes on Hawaii don't steam or smoke, and they aren't steep, so the probably don't add a whole lot to the experience.
Man-made: Honolulu, and not much else. The harbor is busy, but it's so wide open that there won't be any shipping lanes to speak of. Same with airliners.
Lighting effects: Hawaii would be one of the few places where a daytime flight is obviously better than a night time flight. Watching the day-night terminator over the ocean would be a unique experience.
Atmospheric: The islands generate their own weather in the the prevailing winds, with windward clouds and leeward clear. You might also see wind eddies curling away from the islands by the patterns they make on the surface of the ocean. You may see tropical storms in the intertropical convergence zone to the south.
Verdict: B. On the one hand, there is not a whole lot to see. On the other hand, it's Hawaii, and the sheer sense of isolation from seeing tiny pieces of land in so much water is interesting in its own right. Fly during the day and then party all night.
Chugwater Spaceport, Wyoming, USA:
Celestial: nothing special
Geography: Chugwater is located at a pretty striking transition zone, being just east of the front ranges of the Rockies. Further west, a good view of the Grand Tetons, Great Salt Lake, and Great Basin are available. To the east you might see the Missouri River valley and the Black Hills. At the right time of year, you have a good chance of seeing a snowline snaking across the midwest.
Man-made: All the Front Range cities are visible to the south, extending from Cheyenne at takeoff to Albuquerque and El Paso at apogee. Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Oklahoma City are also at the edge of the view. Denver International is a trans-continental air hub, and I-25 is a major north-south route.
Lighting effects: The steep wall of mountains rising two kilometers high to the west may provide for some interesting low-angle sun effects with reflections, occlusions, and shadows. The day-night terminator over the great plains.
Atmospheric: The area is quite dry, but there are blizzards in winter and thunderstorms in summer.
Verdict: B-. There is a lot of variety, and some human artifacts, but nothing really jumps out.
Celestial: southern constellations
Geography: Outstanding. Singapore is at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, and it is surrounded by innumerable islands, most of which have very high mountains and volcanoes on them. The western horizon will be filled with Sumatra, the sixth-largest island in the world, and the eastern horizon Borneo, the third largest The western tip of Java is also visible. The Malacca Strait, just below the flight path, is littered with small islands, as is the sea west of Sumatra, and the sea between Singapore and Borneo, the sea north of Singapore... you get the picture. With so many versions of the same geographic feature available, the fractal effect will be very apparent - one minute you're looking at an island the size of your thumb that you can see individual houses on, and two minutes later an island the same apparent size has mountain ranges and cities with millions of people.
Man-made: Singapore is one of the great cities of the world, and it shrinks from around you to below you to a light fringing a dark sea and sending tendrils into the surrounding forests. Kuala Lumpur is close by, while Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta are a little farther off center, but should be visible during parts of the trip. The Malacca Strait is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world.
Lighting effects: Little islands would stand out of the reflected sunlight well. The sunset/sunrise over the mountains and coast of Sumatra or Borneo would be breathtaking, and watching the terminator's interplay with the steep mountainous islands as it advanced across the sea would be interesting.
Atmospheric: The area is very rainy, and in a predictable way because it is in the tropics. Plan on thunder storms somewhere in your field of view every afternoon.
Verdict: A. Spectacular setting just about any time, but near sunset when the thunderhead are booming, with the terminator chasing across the sea and islands lighting up behind it, would show the mixture of people and geography unique to this part of the world.
Kourou Spaceport, French Guyana: (also applies, somewhat loosely, to Alcantara Launch Complex in Brazil)
Celestial: Southern constellations.
Geography: Kourou lies on the north coast of South America, fronting the tropical Atlantic and backed up against thick rain forest. The most distinctive feature of the flight would undoubtedly be the Amazon River, whose mouth is located 650 km south. The river drains huge amounts of sediment into the Atlantic, which should be visible from space easily. The course is also wide enough to be visible from orbit in many places. The Orinoco River in Venezuela may also be visible. The Lesser Antilles are just outside the 100 km view, so higher altitude craft will have an advantage here. The table-top plateaus in eastern Venezuela and Guyana may be visible, but they will be near the horizon so probably not.
Man-made: The area is sparsely populated and poor. The city of Belem in Brazil is near the horizon, but no other cities of size are close by. Orbital launches from Kourou are a regular occurrence.
Lighting effects: Sunrise over the Atlantic, and sun glinting through the trees during Amazon flooding.
Atmospheric: Thunderstorms every afternoon.
Verdict: B-. The coastal location is nice, and the vast Amazon Rain Forest and River are worth the trip. A higher launch which could see some of the Caribbean islands, tropical storms, and cities like Caracas and Manaus would improve things. Ride in the afternoon, when the thunderheads form with the sun behind them.
Spaceport Scotland, Lossiemouth, UK:
Celestial: Auroras. Somewhat decent light pollution, especially if England is overcast.
Geography: Near the northern tip of Scotland. The lochs and fjords of Scotland would recede quickly, opening to the Orkney, Shetland, and Faroe Islands and Ireland. All of England and Wales would come up gradually during the burn, and you would see across the North Sea to southern Norway, across the Atlantic to Iceland, and across the Channel to France and the low countries. No huge mountains, but the deeply-cut coast line and multitudes of islands will help give a sense of scale and a fractal effect. Northern Scotland is also close to the terminus of the North Atlantic Current, so the ice-free line may be visible at some times of the year.
Man-made: Not much at first... and then England rises. First with Manchester/Liverpool, then London appears. Soon after that, the coast of North Europe comes up, covered in light from Brittany all the way to Copenhagen and Berlin. The North Sea shipping lanes and oil rigs should be visible, as well as the line of airplanes connecting Heathrow with North America.
Lighting effects: Midnite sunrise during winter, full moon over pack ice to the north.
Atmospheric: North Atlantic storms often have a classic occluded front shape that is only apparent from space. The low angle of the sun would provide for longer and redder sunsets and sunrises.
Verdict: B+. Scotland is beautiful, especially if you can get it on a sunny, or as the rest of us say, "mostly cloudy" day. The contrast from the great cities of Europe to the icy depths of the North Atlantic would be a little eery if you could see the spread; and in all but the worst weather you will probably be able to see enough to get the picture.
Spaceport America, New Mexico, USA: (also applies to nearby Blue Origin Launch Facility)
Celestial: Decent light pollution
Geography: There are som smaller mountain ranges to the east, along with White Sands. The Rio Grande River also flows nearby. Further north, still early in the boost phase, the Colorado Rockies come into view, and they should eventually be pretty clear as you go higher. The entire Gulf of California will also be visible, slow extending on the southwest horizon, and most of Baja California as well. Participants will have a decent view of the Grand Canyon and Mogollon Mtns in Arizona. Near the apex, the view will span from Great Salt Lake to the Channel Islands of California, down Baja to the tip, and across northern Mexico. With the right light and maybe a few dozen extra kilometers, the view will truly be sea to shining sea, as the Gulf of Mexico will appear near Corpus Christi, Texas.
Man-made: The immediate area is sparsely populated. El Paso-Juarez is the first big city, and probably the only one that will be obvious until the highest altitude due to atmospheric haze. Phoenix is the closest really big city, and San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tijuana, Monterrey, and Hermosillo should be visible at night at least.
Lighting effects: Nothing special.
Atmospheric: Thunderstorms during monsoon seasons, possibly snowstorms in the Rockies and Utah, and tropical systems after they come on shore in Texas.
Verdict: B. My first reaction was that this is a bad place for a spaceport, because it is surrounded by desert and somewhat underwhelming desert mountain ranges. However, it may have a good progression to it, where it keeps showing new things as you go higher at a good pace to take it all in.
Gulf Coast Regional Spaceport, Texas, USA: (also applies to nearby South Texas Spaceport)
Celestial: nothing special.
Geography: The Gulf Coast Regional Spaceport is aptly named. During the flight, the entire western gulf from Yucatan to Alabama would be visible. Part of the Mexican Pacific coast might be visible to the west near apogee as well. In between are the Sierra Madre of Mexico, including the great volcanoes around Mexico City. The north and west are a lot of plains and desert. The Mississippi delta birdfoot and its attendant sediment should be visible on the horizon during the day. The landscape transitions rather gradually from dark green in the American Southeast, to grassland prairie, to brown deserts in Mexico.
Man-made: There are a number of great cities under this flight envelope. San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston, and Monterrey are good bets to see during the day. The lights of El Paso, Memphis, New Orleans, Merida, Veracruz, Puebla, Mexico City, and Guadalajara are all within the horizon at apogee. Gulf shipping lanes around Galveston and the Mississippi should be visible.
Lighting effects: The GoM presents a big mirror to the east for spectacular sunrises.
Atmospheric: The flat blue water to the east would make for a very red sunrise. The area has regular thunderstorms during warm months, and it is a good candidate to have a tropical storm pass during a given year. You also have regular cold fronts pass, usually to the north somewhat.
Verdict: B+. The GoM would be stunning during sunrise. However, the land side is somewhat underwhelming, and the best parts are near the horizon. The lights of Texas cities are not distinct in the way Singapore or San Francisco are.
Spaceport Dubai, UAE
Celestial: Nothing special.
Geography: More than trackless desert, thankfully. Dubai itself has created some shapes that would be visible a good part of the trip with its offshore construction projects. The Persian Gulf, Straits of Hormuz, and Arabian Sea are recognizable water bodies, and the Gulf has a distinct color to its waters. The Qatar Peninsula and Bahrain Island would rise about halfway up. The mountains in Oman are large enough to show some relief for at least part of the trip, as are the coastal ranges of Persia, which have a very distinct striated pattern from above that probably is not obvious from an airplane. The Euphrates River delta may also be visible at the apogee during the day. Because of the barrenness of the Arabian Peninsula, large-scale geologic features would be quite obvious.
Man-made: The most unique part of the Dubai launch is almost certainly the oil industry. First, the tanker traffic in the Straits of Hormuz and up and down the Gulf - and if you are lucky the occasional carrier battle group. Every oilfield would be alight at night with gas flares, perhaps even brighter than the cities. The cities are much more delineated than in other areas of the world, with close, intense concentrations across a bleak background. Dubai itself would be the most impressive city from above, but Abu Dhabi, Muscate, and Doha would also be easy to pick out. Near the apex, the lights of Riyadh, Kuwait, Shiraz, and possibly even Karachi may be visible.
Lighting effects: Nothing special
Atmospheric: There is not much in the way of weather in this part of the world. There may be a Cyclone in the Arabian Sea on rare occasions, or thunderheads over Iran.
Verdict: B. The oil fires and tankers, and the patterns on the barren land, will make this one interesting. Go at high noon or midnight. For muslims looking for a unique prayer opportunity, a craft that goes up to 250 km altitude can see Mecca on the horizon at apogee.
Spaceport Washington, USA
Celestial: May be high enough latitude to see auroras.
Geography: A good mix of mountains, ocean, and high semiarid plateau. The Spaceport is only 100 km east of the Cascades and 300 km west of the Rockies in the Great Basin. Directly below is the Columbia and Snake River Gorges. In view just after takeoff are the great Cascade volcanoes: Rainier, Adams, Hood, Baker, Shasta, St. Helens, all the way up to Mt. Waddington in British Columbia. All of the Puget Sound, Straits of Juan de Fuca, and Vancouver Island are visible, and the Great Salt Lake and Bonneville Salt Flats are just on the Horizon to the southeast.
Man-made: The string of pearls - Portland, Seattle, Victoria, and Vancouver, are large cities that border water, and have bridges and tall buildings and other interesting features. Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver are busy harbors. Inland is mostly mountains and basins, but Calgary and Salt Lake City should be visible at night.
Lighting effects: Sunset over the layered ranges of the Cascades and Olympics, with alpenglow on the glaciated volcanoes.
Atmospheric: Smoking or steaming volcanoes, big blows off the pacific piling up against the mountains and evaporating over the desert, localized weather systems in the ranges of the Canadian Rockies.
Verdict: A. A beautiful part of the globe, with all the elements of nature and mankind laid out below.
Spaceport Virginia, USA
Celestial: Nothing special. Lots of light pollution.
Geography: Wallops Island is on the barrier Islands between the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays. There are no large mountains nearby to speak of, but the crenellated coast of North America is a classic fractal of barrier islands, inlets, and glacial moraines. Just off the coast is the continental shelf, and this is right around the area where the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador Current. Also, try to spot Bermuda on the southeast horizon.
Man-made: Wallops is really unparallelled in terms of human imprint on the globe. You rise up from a dark barrier island, but almost immediately your western horizon fills with the Megalopolis. Cities rise in progression northward, from Norfolk to Richmond to Washington, Baltimore Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. At first the cities will resolve in some detail - you will probably see the Capitol and Washington Monument, aircraft carriers docked in Norfolk, the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philly, and maybe even some of the relief of Manhattan's skyline. As you go up, the whole will become more apparent, with transit routes thickly lit by suburbs and coast lines and rivers delineated with lights. Further up, parts of Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron should be falling away on the horizon, as well as the lights of cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Cincinnati, Detroit, Toronto, and Montreal. Shipping lanes and air routes will stand out like luminescent ants. I may also be possible to see parts of a space shuttle launch, but the time would have to be perfect.
Lighting effects: At sunset, the sun's reflection will make a sharp fractal shape out of Chesapeake Bay. Sunrises over the Atlantic.
Atmospheric: The Atlantic seaboard has its storms. Lift off while a nor'easter or tropical storm is parellelling the coast. Summer thunderstorms are common, and winter cold fronts often sharply delineate white behind them and green/brown ahead.
Verdict: B. Not much in terms of natural or climatic diversity, but there are not many places where you can look down on more people. Many of the sights are common or guaranteed, so this area is less of a crapshoot than some others.. Take this trip at late dusk so you can see both the coastline and the city lights clearly.
Woomera Spaceport, South Australia, Australia
Celestial: Southern constellations, low light pollution
Geography: Woomera is stuck in the Australian interior, but it is only a couple hundred km from the Indian Ocean to the south. The north is a massive swath of desert, and to the east lies Australia's breadbasket, the Murray-Darling river system. Ayers Rock may be visible for parts of the flight during the day.
Man-made: Adelaide is nearby, and Melbourne will also be visible for a good part of the flight. Sydney is just over the horizon, but travellers may be able to pick out Canberra.
Lighting effects: Nothing special.
Atmospheric: Antartic fronts to the south marching in succession.
Verdict: C+. There's a whole lot of empty land here, but there is also a coastline and some cities.