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.