The Future, Soon

Denny's musings on space, tech, writing, photography, books, comedy, and whatever



This was written in 2018 immediately after seeing Les Miserables at the Paramount Theater in Seattle. Because I had a lot more fun writing this than I did actually seeing the production, I’m sharing it here.


PART I: Recapping the First 90 Minutes in 5 Learnings

Revolutionary France death sentence

  1. All but a rare few French people are serious jerks.
  2. Inspectors will NEVER forgive stealing a lousy loaf of bread.
  3. Two people can fall in true, mutual love by merely seeing each other on the street.
  4. Jean Val Jean is kind of a moron for not realizing until now that he really should consider moving away from the one town where everyone knows he has a criminal past.
  5. Oh, and the French are revolting.

PART II: A Few Issues with the Script

Empanada, the girl raised with Croquet, spends 15 minutes singing of her love for Guy.*

She is then immediately fatally shot.

She tells Guy of her love. He cradles her and says he loves her and will always be there for her in her life.

Then she dies.

Then a full minute of combat or talking or something else unmemorable happens. A minute having passed, Guy then feels distant enough from Empanada to sing of his undying love for Croquet.

(* We call him Guy because it’s a French name and I can’t hear clearly enough to catch his name. Also, it is fitting, because though he is instantly lovable, he is also amazingly generic.)

Then he passes out and Jean Val Jean sings of something that was unintelligible with the acoustics of the corner I was sitting in, but whatever it was, he holds this sustained high note at the end of the song for like 45 seconds, which gets a huge round of applause and makes the ghost of Whitney Houston rise briefly from the grave.

Then a little boy sings of the glory of child soldiers and is immediately shot dead.

When Empanada was the first to die, Fabio said the battle would be won in her name. 10 minutes later, everyone is shot dead except Guy and Jean.

First, Guy sings of Croquet, and now this. Empanada gets no respect.

Oh, and at some point Jean lets the captured Inspector escape. The Inspector finds good in Jean Val Jean, and he cannot reconcile a world where he can see good in a bread thief, so he jumps off a bridge and kills himself. Seriously. This happens.

Jean Val Jean carries Guy’s body through the sewers, beneath Arkham Asylum. (I think; it gets a little unclear here.) He passes out and is robbed by Croquet’s former foster dad, because if you think it’s a small world where you live, you obviously haven’t been to France.

The Penguin from Gotham, added in 2022 in case you’re reading this on the Internet Archive in 2144 or something.

Jean wakes up, carries Guy home, and with her love still strong even though Guy has somehow become the Penguin from the Gotham TV show (seriously: outfit, cane, hair, limp, all of it), Croquet nurses him back to handsomeness.

Then they get married, Guy punches foster dad (because small world) at the wedding, and finds out Jean Val Jean was the one who saved him.
Knowing Croquet is safely in the hands of our generic hero, Jean goes off to die of shame for having stolen bread to feed a child 35 years before.

The ghost of Croquet’s hot mom appears and thanks Jean for raising her daughter, and says “come to heaven and I’ll show you some real thanks.”

Croquet and Guy show up and say Jean must live and stay with them. Jean looks at Croquet’s mom, who is now, creepily, joined in beckoning him to the afterlife by Empanada’s ghost. (Don’t do it, Jean! Empanada may be dead, but she’s still jailbait. Jeez, dude!)

Jean Val Jean decides eternity with Hot Ghost Mom is somehow preferable to sitting around and cramping Croquet and Guy’s generic passion, and immediately dies.

In Heaven, Jean joins the Choir of Dead Ineffective Barricade Revolutionaries, who apparently know how bad the acoustics are in my corner, because they start singing about whether I can hear the people sing.

No, I actually can’t hear the people sing. Not clearly, anyway.

Guy and Croquet are apparently concerned as well, because they sing along despite not being ghosts.

Then everyone bows and I run to beat the crowd to the bathroom.


User eXperience (UX) Writing and Design

As a sincere believer that technology improves our lives when it’s well implemented, I’ve always enjoyed making the products I love more accessible. This started with writing tutorials and tips pieces as a tech journalist. After I joined Microsoft, I was able to help make Windows and the Xbox even more accessible and useful to customers as a UX writer and producer. My user experience work has focused on listening to what works for customers, simplifying what frustrates them, ensuring key functionality is prominent, and making the experience friendlier.

I worked with the engineering team to design the My Xbox feature from the ground up. The concept was to make all your key communication and information as an Xbox gamer accessible no matter where you are, from messaging and viewing achievements to seeing what your friends are playing. I helped to design the text, the customer flow, and prioritize My Xbox’s launch features. Over a decade later, this feature still lives on as the Xbox Profile, and it continues to grow in popularity.

When the Xbox One launched, presenting a collection of related items to a customer was labor intensive, and the customer experience was poor, requiring them to click a game’s image to see the price and description. I worked with the engineering team to implement and evangelize collections. This feature provides an easily updated, catalog-based method for presenting collections of items for sales, events, and other promotions. Collections dramatically increased revenue by enabling larger and more frequent sale events on the Xbox One dashboard. The more efficient build and localization process of the catalog-based design let us present sales and other collections worldwide, instead of just in the highest priority regions. Collections also make for a much better experience by letting customers see a game’s price, discount, and details without forcing them to click through to each individual title.

When the Xbox One brought HD displays and smooth framerates to console gaming, our team felt like we could use those capabilities to really show off AAA game launches. Working with an amazing team of artists, designers, and coders on the Xbox Dash team, including Bruce Warren, Todd Bohanna, and Jana Sheehan, we created full-on multiple-page multimedia promotions to promote the launches of AAA titles like Ryse: Son of Rome, Halo 4, and Battlefield 4. Called Media Experiences (MEs), these modules included animated backgrounds; detailed explorations of game features, lore, and characters; videos, photos and music; and they allowed gamers to share excitement for the games via console messaging. MEs not only had significantly higher customer engagement than typical game detail page promotions, but they also provided a significant lift in preorders.

(Imagine this with animated rain and flashing fire, and the Battlefield theme playing.)

Building off the success of the web-based My Xbox, Microsoft decided to build a dedicated Windows Xbox app for Xbox One players, allowing customers to see and preorder/purchase new and upcoming games, communicate with friends, stream Xbox games to the PC, and more. As the gaming lead on the Xbox dash team, I ensured that the user experience followed best customer practices and I prioritized the functionality that our metrics indicated was top priority in the initial launch. After the application was relaunched to support the highly successful Game Pass subscription programming, I worked with the engineering team to refine the UX and prioritize the functionality for the Store section in the app.

Of all the UX work I’ve done, redefining the Windows UX, Help system, and troubleshooter process has likely had the most positive impact on customer experiences. Teaming with Windows engineers on areas such as audio devices, driver installation, and user access control, my team and I worked to make Help text more accessible (and we were the first team to use real-time customer feedback to further refine help information), to improve user interface text, and to make flows for processes more logical and streamlined. From significant changes like completely rewriting help files into a friendlier voice, to small but helpful details like adding illustrations of audio jack functionality, our team significantly increased customer satisfaction with the Windows UX in comparison to the legacy Windows XP/95 content we replaced.

Improving the user experience has always been a passion. When the Xbox engineering team was trying to get approval to do an unprecedented total revamp of the Xbox 360 user interface, I interviewed Marc Whitten, then the head of Xbox development, and created a faux Wired article fictionally describing the proposed “New Xbox Experience” a year after it launched. That article helped Marc get the greenlight from execs for a costly, risky revamp that continues to evolve today in the Xbox user interface. It’s awesome to power-on an Xbox 360 console and still see the fruits of the efforts my team and I made, and to see those improvements still reflected in the latest Xbox Series X|S.

Having started my technology enthusiasm in the days of typing LOAD “:*”,8,1 to start a game, and now loving an era of being able to just say  “Alexa, let’s play Star Trek trivia” anywhere in my house, it’s exciting to see how much the user experience has improved.

As we move forward into new frontiers like virtual and augmented reality, the continued improvement of digital assistants, and more, I’m psyched to see where the user experience will go, and excited to be a part of helping make these awesome, entertaining, life-improving technologies even more accessible to future audiences.

A Writing Sampler

I started writing professionally in grad school working on my MS in Communication, after making a bet with my roommate Jimmy on who could get published first in a computer magazine. I won the bet, and I’ve been writing and editing professionally since. Along the way I’ve done features, reviews, and tutorials for consumer magazines like OMNI, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, United Airlines Hemispheres, and a wide variety of technology magazines and websites, including Tom’s Hardware, ExtremeTech, c|net, Computer Shopper, Computer Gaming World, Handheld Computing, AmigaWorld, COMPUTE!, and many more. Also four books so far, and a ton of technical writing ranging from software manuals to Windows help files and user interface text. It’s been a bit like having writing class homework due throughout my entire life, but I love it.

Feature Articles

The Science of Star Trek
This was written for the late, great OMNI Magazine. I was able to interview science fiction production luminaries like Andre Bormanis and Mike Okuda while they were working on series like Star Trek: The Next Generation. This assignment also landed me a chance to visit the Deep Space Nine sets.

Virtual Blue Yonder: Fightertown Takes Off
Another OMNI article. The tour of Fightertown, a virtual air combat facility, was a blast, but the best part of this one was getting to fly in the back seat of a real USAF F-15D. I wish I’d had about four more pages to write about that part of the experience.

VR Headset Head-to-Head
A comparison of the Oculus Rift and HP Vive for Computer Shopper. I think the headline pun was just fortuitous.


Cloud 9 C989 ergonomic keyboard (Tom’s Hardware)

Fnatic REACT+ headphones (Tom’s Hardware)

Oculus Rift VR headset (Computer Shopper)

Oculus Touch VR controllers (Computer Shopper)

HP Elite Slice PC (Computer Shopper)

Digital Storm Eclipse PC (Computer Shopper)

JVC Everio GZ-MG37 camcorder (c|net)


Sony CLIE for Dummies (Wiley Publishing)
One of four technology tutorial books that I wrote or co-wrote, this one in the popular “…for Dummies” series. This is a PDF containing a few sample chapters to give you an idea of my accessible style when writing tutorials for novice and casual readers.

User Experience

UX Examples: Over the years I’ve helped make, the Xbox console, and even Windows easier to use and more accessible. Here’s a look at some of the work I’ve done,.


BackupBuddy 2.0 (Blue Nomad Software)


Build a VR Powerhouse
I was given a $2,000 budget to design and build a fast PC for VR gaming. Part of Computer Shopper’s “Build It” series, the idea was to show not just what I chose, but explain why I chose those parts, and then talk about the process of putting it all together.

Video Scripting and Voiceover

I codesigned, cowrote, and cohosted Xbox LIVE’s Insider Moves game tips show along with Ryan Treit. This pioneering tips show, created when YouTube was still in its infancy, would often get over a million views each week on the Xbox 360 console. We aimed to provide content for novices and hardcore gamers alike, and incorporated humor and running jokes to keep people coming back even if they weren’t stuck in that particular game.

I’ve also appeared as a guest expert covering computer hardware and gaming on broadcast shows such as The Screen Savers and CNN Headline News.


Denny Atkin Photography on Facebook
A small sample of my photography. I’m a big aviation and space buff so you’ll find an emphasis on airshow pictures and drone panoramas, but there’s a bit more variety in my Samples Album. I’ve also taken hundreds of product photos to accompany reviews and feature articles; you’ll find some of those accompanying many of the articles above.

NASA Social Reporting

The Final Space Shuttle Launch
Day 1, Part 1:The Twent
Day 1, Part 2: Visiting the Launch Pad
Day 2, Part 1: Ground Control to @Astro_Ron
Day 2, Part 2: Go for Launch? Really?
I was lucky enough to be selected as one of about 100 social media representatives to view and report on the final Space Shuttle launch, STS-135, as part of the NASA Social program. Since then, I’ve also reported on the first test launch of the Orion capsule that will be used in NASA’s Artemis program, and on a visit to the NASA Armstrong center at Edwards AFB to report on aerospace research.

Oculus Rift S – Quick Hands-On

This is a quick hands-on impression of the Oculus Rift S from the view of a flight sim player. It’s not a full review (plenty of those around) and it’s focused on the rather niche category of flight simulations, which is where the Rift S turns out to really prove it’s worthwhile.

Despite the lukewarm reviews and the minor upgrades in specs, Matt Wagner’s commentary on the Rift S’s clarity in DCS made me order it from Amazon (where I could return it easily if not impressed).

I’m *not* returning it. Spent the evening flying flight sims in it and it’s clearly a worthwhile upgrade for sim fans. You would think it had much higher resolution than the original (CV1) Oculus Rift, given the additional clarity. The screen door effect (visible pixels) is just *gone*. (At least, for my eyes.)

Some impressions trying various flight simulators:

  • Prepar3D v4.51 probably sees the most significant improvement, with instruments just dramatically easier to read. Everything looks sharper as well.
  • Matt Wagner wasn’t kidding about DCS. The view from the F-86 Sabre cockpit was just amazingly sharp.
  • IL-2 Battle of Moscow/Bodenplatte/etc is by far the best looking of them all. With no screen door effect and the efficient VR engine, the visuals are just stunning. Flew the P-47D around and was blown away.
  • Also tried FlyInside Flight Simulator, and while that one’s in very early access, it worked and looked great.
  • I haven’t tried X-Plane 11 or AeroFly FS2 yet, but I have no doubt they’ll be awesome given all the other sims.

A quick game of Beat Sabre showed the controller tracking to be as good in that game as with the OG Rift with three sensors spread around the room — it never lost tracking.

Random notes:

  • The 80Hz vs 90Hz refresh rate difference from the original Rift isn’t noticeable
  • I was thinking I’d need to use headphones since they dropped the earphones and added tiny speakers near your ear. But the audio is surprisingly clear from these, and it’s nice to be able to hear sounds in the room if someone comes in. This was maybe the biggest pleasant surprise. I wouldn’t use them for music (no bass) or watching movies, but it’s fine for flight sims.
  • The internal tracking on the controllers works well
  • Soooo much easier to set up than the original Rift or the Vive without all the tracking stations
  • You now define the room by laser-drawing the border with the controllers instead of having to walk around in view of cameras, much easier
  • Even with three cameras, the original Rift would sometimes lose track of tracking and I’d find my head sticking out the top of a cockpit, down by the rudder pedals, or on a wing, and have to re-set the VR view. Didn’t happen once with the Rift S.
  • Unlike some of the professional reviewers, I actually like the new headband better than the original Rift’s. Easier to adjust for different users.
  • My one negative so far? There isn’t the big gap around your nose that I used to peek down through on the OG Rift to view the keyboard when playing sims. I’ve had to lift the headset a few times to find a key.

Answering Some Questions

I posted an earlier version of this on a couple of simulation and gaming forums, and some questions came up. Here are the answers:

  • Field of view is supposed to be slightly better than the original Rift, but I couldn’t see a difference.
  • Because the new screen is LCD based instead of OLED, the blacks aren’t going to be as… black. But flying around in Prepar3D and IL-2 at night, the night sky and scenery looked about the same as it does on a monitor — it’s not washed out or gray.
  • Oculus Tray Tool (and everything else I tried) works fine. I used it to set P3D to a supersampling rate of 1.5 and it looked super-sharp.

If you’re playing action-based VR games, games with cartoony graphics, or really anything outside of vehicle simulations, I’m not sure the improvements in the Rift S would justify an upgrade from the original Oculus Rift CV1. But for flight sims, the Rift S awesome and I have zero regrets on the money spent.

I had an HP Reverb on order as well, thinking the increased resolution would be a big benefit in sims. But I just cancelled that order, because the Rift S is so sharp I’m quite satisfied, and the Oculus solution is going to have much better frame rates than the Reverb’s higher resolution will afford.

I don’t know what the cancelled “Rift 2” was going to be, but the S might as well stand for “Sim edition” and it’s a nice upgrade for my usage scenario.

(If you decide to buy one and use this Amazon link, I’ll get a couple of bucks in Amazon credit, which would be cool and appreciated.)

Memorialized for WW2 heroism

BRITISH AIRCRAFT IN ROYAL AIR FORCE SERVICE, 1939-1945: VICKERS WELLINGTON. (ME(RAF) 3703) Two Wellington Mark ICs, Z8797 ?A? and Z9095 ?D?, of No. 38 Squadron RAF, in flight over the Western Desert, probably while based at Shallufa, Egypt.  These aircraft were specially converted for use as torpedo bomber/minelayers by the Squadron. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: BRITISH AIRCRAFT IN ROYAL AIR FORCE SERVICE, 1939-1945: VICKERS WELLINGTON. (ME(RAF) 3703) Two Wellington Mark ICs, Z8797 ?A? and Z9095 ?D?, of No. 38 Squadron RAF, in flight over the Western Desert, probably while based at Shallufa, Egypt. These aircraft were specially converted for use as torpedo bomber/minelayers by the Squadron. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

My great uncle was recently recognized by the city of London for his service in WW2 by having a new street, Morgan Ave., in the west end named after him.

Franklin Benedict Morgan was an RCAF Pilot Officer who flew for 99 Squadron RAF on both bombing and mine-laying missions.

While flying Wellington LC Z8891 of 99 Sqn. on their return from Bremen he and his crew were forced to ditch off Lowestoft and were picked up by a trawler.

He was flying for the RAF’s 38th Squadron in Egypt in 1942 when his plane was hit while returning from a mission. A couple of his crew were able to bail out and he attempted to nurse his badly damaged Vickers Wellington bomber back to base. Unfortunately, the bomber ran out of fuel and crashed just four miles short of his home station near Cairo. He’s buried in the Heliopolis Military Cemetery in Egypt.

Due to a 1940s-era divorce I never got to know the Morgan side of my family well, but I’m honored by the service of my great uncle in helping win the war.

Both of my grandfathers — Donald Thorburn, who I was very close to and who helped raise me and build my interest in science, and my genetic grandfather Donald Morgan — also served in WW2. Opa (Don Thorburn) was an X-ray technician on the front lines, helping wounded soldiers as the allies advanced north into Italy. Don Morgan was a Canadian adviser to Winston Churchill, among other duties.

Under (re)Construction

The original contents of this blog were lost due to a GoDaddy snafu in 2017, but I’m currently re-building the blog thanks to having grabbed copies of early snapshots of my blog posts. As we head into a new era of launching astronauts from American soil, I feel it’s worth the effort to document where we’ve been, as we head into the future.

I’ll be focusing on resurrecting my space posts for now. My guide to building a Windows 7 Media Center PC/DVR probably isn’t going to be that useful in 2019.

Once the old content’s back, I’m looking forward to chronicling upcoming missions to the ISS and beyond, as well as musings about technology, comedy, and more.

Test Flight: Orion EFT-1

My original blog entry about the Orion launch was alas lost when GoDaddy deleted my earlier site, so this is a “best-of” recap of the highly successful Orion EFT-1 flight test NASA Social.

I live-tweeted the social, including the Kennedy Space Center tour, the first day excitedly waiting for the eventually-scrubbed launch, and the final launch. Click here to read the Tweets and see the images I posted during the NASA Social event.

The Twitter stream is a good recap of the actual event. The flight was a resounding success. After the launch most of us went to the KSC tour to watch the recovery in the theater there. You can see my video of the launch, and NASA’s video of the recovery, at the bottom of the post.

For more background on the planned test, see NASA’s data sheet on Orion EFT-1. For a full recap of the timetable of the flight, the Orion EFT-1 Wikipedia article has some good info.

See my pics below. It was an honor to be invited by NASA to be a part of this historic event in our move to send humans past earth orbit again. Looking forward to visiting KSC to see astronauts launching from American soil again soon!

Orion: First Step to Deep Space

On December 3 and 4, I’ll be part of a lucky group of 150 people chosen from thousands of applicants to attend the NASA Social event for the first launch of Orion, NASA’s next space vehicle. On Wednesday, we’ll tour Kennedy Space Center in the morning, and from 1-3 pmoriononpad EST we’ll be the audience for a NASA TV broadcast about the upcoming launch. We’ll hear from scientists and engineers supporting the Orion program, and hopefully get a chance to see it on the launch pad. Then, on Thursday, we’ll be up during the pre-dawn hours to head out to the NASA Causeway, where if all goes well we’ll be able to witness the launch from the press area just a couple of miles away. I’ll be covering the launch on this blog, and tweeting live at @dennya on Twitter.


What is Orion?

Orion is a new space capsule that’s a component in NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System, the crewed successor to the Space Shuttle program that will be used to travel to the moon, asteroids, or even Mars. Orion resembles the Apollo Command Modules of the 60s and 70s, but with room for four to six astronauts, and modern 21st century technology inside. Like the Apollo capsules, Orion will return to Earth via parachutes, and will splash down in the ocean for recovery.

Orion will be protected during reentry by a huge 16.5-foot diameter heat shield on the bottom of the capsule, as well as 970 Space Shuttle-style tiles surrounding the upper portion. As with Apollo, an escape rocket will be mounted above Orion to pull the astronauts to safety should something go wrong during launch.

Though NASA is promoting Orion as the first step towards Mars, the capsule isn’t roomy enough to support a trip of that length. By itself, it can support a crew of four for up to 21 days in space, so it would be paired with a habitat module that could allow for longer trips, and possibly a crew of up to six. (And hopefully a lander as well, if they’re going that far!) Current proposed initial crewed flights for Orion include a possible test flight around the moon (with no landing) and an asteroid recovery mission. The asteroid mission is particularly ambitious: a robotic tug will fly out to the asteroid belt, snag a small asteroid, and bring it back into orbit around the Moon. Then astronauts will fly to the asteroid on Orion to do scientific investigation.

This Week’s Flight

The launch I’m attending, Exploration Flight Test-1, is an uncrewed first test of Orion’s systems, designed to ensure that everything works as planned before the first flights with astronauts aboard. The 4.5 hour flight will include two orbits of Earth, reaching a peak altitude of 3,609 miles in order to simulate a re-entry speed similar to what will be experienced returning from the moon.

This flight will test the capsule’s systems and shielding, making sure that Orion can safely protect human passengers from the heavy radiation it will encounter passing through the Van Allen Belt around the Earth. The capsule is heavily instrumented to measure heat, radiation, and other criteria throughout the flight.

During re-entry, the Orion capsule will face temperatures of up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 80% of the 5,000-degree temperatures expected during a return from lunar orbit. A series of 11 drogue and main parachutes will slow the capsule down, culminating in the deployment of three 116-foot-diameter main chutes that lower the capsule’s speed to less than 20 mph for splashdown. As with the Apollo capsules, US Navy ships will be standing by to recover Orion from the ocean.


Because the Space Launch System rocket – a monstrously huge craft, bigger than a Saturn V, which uses updated Space Shuttle main engines and stretched versions of the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters – isn’t yet ready to test fly, Orion will be lofted to orbit by a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. It will be interesting to compare the power and noise from the last launch I attended: STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program.

Next Steps

There’s some criticism that Orion doesn’t have a clear mission. But by the time Orion is ready to fly with a crew, we’ll have a new administration in office, so its first destination will likely be determined by whoever is President then. It’s an unfortunate reality of our system that, as governments change, long-term programs like Orion often get re-tasked or reset. In fact, the Orion capsule was originally designed as part of NASA’s Constellation rocket program, which President Obama canceled after taking office. We’d likely be much closer to flying to an actual destination had there not been a political reset of the Shuttle successor, and hopefully the next administration will support this existing effort to reach out past our planet’s orbit and not force similar delays and resets. Orion alone is not an interplanetary craft, but it’s the first step in developing a craft that can take humans past the moon and into a future where we’re not fully dependent upon one planet for our continued survival.

— Denny Atkin

I’m excited to hear that Electronic Arts has been selected to produce the next wave of Star Wars games after the shuttering of LucasArts. The news that DICE, BioWare, and Visceral will be doing Star Wars titles should please most

Now, I probably shouldn’t post this, but I just got hold of a secret document outlining EA’s 2015 gaming lineup, and I had to share the excitement!

  • Battlefield: Hoth
  • The Sims 5: Tatooine
  • Jane’s Combat Simulations: Incom T-65 X-Wing
  • Need for Landspeeder
  • Sarlacc Age: Origins
  • Blasterstorm
  • Kingdoms of Alderaan: Reckoning
  • B.A.N.T.H.A.
  • Command & Conquer 27: Corellian Dawn
  • Force Effect
  • Medal of Honor Spaceborne
  • American McGee’s Leia
  • Madden NFL 16
  • Archon IV: The Light and the Dark Sides
  • Plants vs. Wookies
  • Trash Compactor Keeper
  • MySims Podrace
  • Privateer 3: Millenium Falcon
  • Rock Band Cantina

NASATweetup Day 2, Part 2: Go for Launch? Really?

As we returned from the cafeteria, the skies were looking surprisingly tame. Might we actually get to see a launch today? The buzz around the Twent wasn’t consistent: Some said we were still green for launch, while others had heard there were no-go rain clouds downrange. The excitement was building, but we all tried to temper it because the official word was still a 30% chance of a launch.

With less than half an hour to go before the scheduled launch, @MituK and I headed outside to set up our cameras on our tripods. I got mine set up and started working on figuring out the exposure when Mitu reminded me that I was going to loan her my extra zoom lens. “Oh, sure, I’ll go back and grab it,” I said out loud, while thinking “But what if I trip on the way back to the tent? What if a baby alligator crawls up to my tripod and I’m not there to scare it away? What if…” But I steeled myself to step away from my carefully secured vantage point and headed back to grab the lens.

I walked in the Twent just in time to hear the end of the launch status check, as the mission controllers asking the various groups for their go/no-go calls. Not believing my ears after steeling myself for disappointment all day, I asked a guy standing near me, “Did he just say we’re go for launch?” “Yes, he did!”

I grabbed my lens and once again floated, rather than ran, back out to the camera line. I handed @MituK the lens and told her “Go for launch!” I can’t think of many things I’ve ever said to anyone that have elicited a smile that big. I looked around for the rest of the #NerdForceOne crew, but @CelticFeminist and @lartist were elsewhere in the crowd.

We were behind and to the right of the countdown clock, so we couldn’t see it and we were dependent on the folks behind us for updates. “Two minutes!” Holy Moly, they really were going to launch this thing! My camera all set, remote shutter in my hand (so I could watch the launch directly instead of through the eyepiece), I let the excitement build. It’s going up!

“Thirty seconds!” someone called. I pressed the shutter release on the Canon SD4000 pocket camera that I’d MacGuyvered to the top of my T2i DSLR to capture launch video. I grabbed a couple more shots of the last time a Space Shuttle would ever sit on Pad 39A.

And then… nothing. Soon it became clear that more than 30 seconds had passed. What was happening? Were the astronauts in danger? Was this a pad abort? Did we get that close and scrub? A wave of intense disappointment crushed down on me. I figured if anything went wrong this close to launch, we’d be in for a few days of investigation and we’d miss the launch.

Then, out of a crowd that had grown deadly quiet, someone says “The clock is moving again! Thirty seconds!” Disappointment instantly replaced by a staggering level of excitement! Just 30 seconds? Restarted the video (forgot to zoom this time, darnit), finger on the DLSR shutter release, and ready for launch!

“Ten.. Nine…Eight…” I joined in the count. After the crazy storms of Thursday, the bleak prediction for Friday weather, and the unexpected hold, getting to this point in the countdown seemed an impossible goal. But then the white smoke began to billow out from below the shuttle, and the group erupted into a roar of excitement. Atlantis began to slowly and silently rise from the behind the launchpad, riding on a pillar of fire that seemed as bright as the sun. Then, an earthquake-like vibration passed across the ground below us, and suddenly we heard and felt the roar and crackle of the engines. It’s difficult to describe the sensation that close to the pad. It’s not as if sound starts growing, it as if the sound waves are a very strong, very loud wind that rushes to and through you.

Atlantis gained speed, heading towards the cloud deck. As it passed through, for a fraction of a second the clouds around Atlantis looked to be on fire as the Shuttle passed through them.

The applause and cheers, which hadn’t abated since launch, reached a new crescendo as the Shuttle passed out of sight. We took some pictures around the exhaust pillar, the only indication remaining that a Space Shuttle had left the launch pad for the very last time, and then started heading inside to watch NASA TV to confirm SRB separation and a successful orbit.

Seeing a launch from such a close distance, literally feeling the ship leave our planet, and experiencing it with the people who make it happen was truly a moving experience. I felt energized, proud, and just gobsmacked by what the what NASA’s accomplishment. A Space Shuttle launch has never been “routine,” and seeing the people, equipment, and professionalism necessary to make this enormous rocket leave the planet drives that home even further.

As I headed back to the Twent to take a look at my launch pictures and reflect on what I’d seen, I saw my new friends reacting in every possible way. Some were talking at a million miles an hour about what they’d just seen. Some were reflecting quietly. More than a few were moved to tears. I think it’s impossible to see something like that and not be affected by it.

A few of us took post-launch pics with Elmo.

And as Atlantis heads into its final 12-day mission, over 150 people who were already space enthusiasts were moved to become space activists. You can’t watch that amazing space ship head into orbit and imagine that it’s the last time we’ll accomplish something so significant. You can’t see the wonder of a crewed, winged ship that can launch an enormous space station into orbit and be satisfied with a future that limits us to 1960s earth-orbiting space capsules. You can’t look at the accomplishments of the Space Shuttle, the ISS, Hubble, and the other amazing orbiting and planetary satellites and sit back silently while Congress throws away billions of dollars already invested, and universe-changing scientific potential, for short-term saving by canceling the Webb Space Telescope.

The Tweeps are already writing and calling reps about the Webb Telescope. Whether or not we can save it, we have to try. And we’re discussing getting together again, not just because we had a fantastic time with a bunch of like-minded people who feel that humanity has to continue to reach past the sky to achieve its full potential, but also because our geographically diverse group, with experience ranging from planetary science to marketing to construction to beer company social media, can spread our enthusiasm to an an enormous and varied audience. We’re organizing, and while some Tweeps will return to their day-to-day lives with a vivid memory of the end of an era of amazing accomplishment, others are going to do what we can to help make sure that, whatever our problems are at home, we don’t let those stop us from continuing to expand our knowledge and reach for the skies.

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