Around T-5 minutes to the launch of shuttle Atlantis, I overhear a man say, "The uncertainty makes it exciting." Thousands of us have been sitting in the Rocket Garden of Kennedy Space Center for the last five hours. And in the last few minutes, butterflies started to flutter in my stomach. We were so close... but the blast off could still be called off at any second.
The odds seemed stacked against Atlantis lifting off on the first try. Clouds rolled in overnight Thursday and refused to blow over. NASA rated the weather as only 30% favorable for launch. "The Sunshine State" was not living up to its nickname... and was threatening to disappoint around one million space fans.
We had arrived at KSC shortly after 5 in the morning. The last thing I heard on the radio was an announcer saying, "You know that shuttle launch today? Not gonna happen. It's raining." The security guard at the front gate also joked, "The launch is cancelled." I didn't laugh.
The clouds were so thick you couldn't see a single star. As the sun rose, it confirmed what we feared: things did not look good. But the countdown clock kept on ticking and the crowd refused to lose hope. People had come from all over to watch the last shuttle blast off. I flew in from Hong Kong on a whim. My sister won tickets at the last minute and we organized a trip for my dad's birthday.
One man told me he drove all night from Canada. "I was going to sleep when I got here," he said, "but I'm too excited." Another couple from Oregon had tried to see Endeavour launch. They stayed in Florida for a week after it was scrubbed, but had to watch it from home in the end. So they made another attempt for Atlantis, saying it was worth purchasing another flight to try and see the last lift-off.
Most of the crowd had never witnessed a launch before. A show of hands indicated the majority of us were first-timers. We cheered every time we heard the word "go." As in, "Weather is go for launch." And we were all on our feet by the time the hydrogen burnoff sparklers lit up.
We could see the launch pad on a big screen. I think I held my breath once the main engines started. This was really happening! Then came ignition and liftoff. We could see the shuttle leave the ground. Finally, it came over the trees and into our view.
Time slowed down but still passed too quickly. Atlantis rose silently toward the heavens, entering the clouds. But like a performer giving an encore, the shuttle reappeared.
It seemed as though the shuttle and the sky knew it was the last time they would have this dance... and they wanted to make it last for all of us down on the ground. I had to fight back tears.
Then Atlantis disappeared for a second time, leaving behind a trail of smoke. Sound then caught up and we could hear the roar of liftoff. Someone in the bleachers shouted, "One more time!"
Of course, there's not even a next time. This is the end of the shuttle program. NASA keeps talking about its next steps for deep space exploration, but nothing is ready yet. I can only hope that it all works out. And while I wait, I'll keep telling myself, "The uncertainty makes it exciting."