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If you read one thing about the Atlantis shuttle launch, read this first-hand account by Karen James.

It's beautiful and vivid writing. The attention to detail (the bit with the shadow) and sense of place ("It begins when the white noise of nervous chatter around me gradually coalesces into a ragged chant") are marvellous. Also, note the economy of phrase. Eight words at the end of paragraph four remind us of tragedy amidst the excitement. The quote in the antepenultimate graf ("My job is now obsolete") reminds us that this is the last shuttle mission, leaving us to ponder the implications without shoving it down our throats.

For me at least, it's so much better than Norman Mailer's purple prose
Karen James describes the sights and sounds of the final space shuttle launch, witnessed from Nasa's press site
Maryn McKenna's profile photoEd Yong's profile photoKaren James's profile photosimon frantz's profile photo
Karen James nailed it. And there's a deeper meaning to the "connected to Atlantis" part, at least in my mind: Once that spacecraft goes up, your mind never leaves the astronauts.

I used to joke that covering a space shuttle mission should be called "astronaut babysitting." (This is meant to be both funny and serious, for the dense folks out there).
I suppose this means I flunk "New Journalism 101: The Sixties and What They Brought Us," but Mailer inevitably makes me want to stick forks in my eyes. (Karen's piece, on the other hand, is vivid and direct, so brava her.)
I loved the brevity of it. It placed me in the moment completely and suddenly. No fuss. No overblown build-up. Just raw reaction. I thought it was a very smart piece to publish in the context of other, more eulogistic articles out there.
Thanks Ed, it actually really helps to hear from a journalist I admire like yourself, not just that you liked it, but what you liked about it. Then I can try to do it again. It's also nice to know that people notice the little things that I worked hard to get just right.
Ed Yong
Agreed with Simon. Karen, did someone commission it? Did you pitch?
I didn't pitch the idea of an as-it-happened piece, partly because as a scientist, not a professional writer, I am not savvy about pitching and partly because I wouldn't have known beforehand that this was what I wanted to write.What I did pitch (if you can call it that) was the general concept of me going to the launch (self-funded) and writing a blog post for the Guardian. This way I could use the Guardian as my affiliation to get media accreditation, which is notoriously difficult, to witness the launch from the press site.
I just read Mailer. While the purple prose is hard to take, I'd be willing to forgive it if there were also some good science and explanation there. Unfortunately, there's next to nil.
Well, then, I'm even more impressed. I wouldn't have thought about such a piece, what with audio and video readily available to capture such a moment. But yet again this shows the power of text, and it was a delight to read.
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