Breakfast Crowd Goes to Launch

Small Florida town plays host to space shuttle enthusiasts - a letter from Titusville

A CHROME-red sun rises over Cape Canaveral as the countdown moves steadily forward on the space shuttle Discovery. T-minus-1-hour, 30-minutes: the five-member crew begins its communications check.

T-minus-1-hour, 20-minutes: the spacecraft's side hatch is locked shut.

As blastoff nears, excitement grows, not only aboard the Discovery, but along the Titusville waterfront. Here at the edge of the Indian River - also famous for its citrus fruit - is where crowds of space enthusiasts gather every time the shuttle roars toward the heavens.

Thousands are here today. They've come from across the United States - Michigan, California, Texas, New York, Massachusetts. They park their RVs, vans, station wagons, cars, and motorcycles along the waterfront parks and causeways, getting as close to the rocket base as officials will allow.

They peer toward the space center through binoculars, hoping for a first glimpse of yellow-orange flame as Discovery lifts off. Many listen to portable radios, which blare out the latest count from mission control.

``You should be here at the press center - you get a much better view,'' says a friendly media spokeswoman at the John F. Kennedy Space Center.

``No,'' I reply. ``I want a man-in-the-street view - to see what anyone can who makes the trip to Florida.''

Many do make the trip. There are dozens here today from as far away as Europe, Latin America, Asia. They chatter excitedly among themselves in German, French, Spanish, Japanese as the countdown ticks by. This is one tourist attraction even Disney World can't match.

Not everyone here is a space ``nut,'' of course. The cashier at a local Wendy's sniffs at all the space excitement. ``Another shuttle flight? No, I never bother to look up. I just think, `So what?' ''

But for some, the thrill never wanes. A Florida resident tells of an earlier shuttle flight that took off on a Wednesday night at 7:30, just when her church's regular mid-week service was scheduled to begin.

When 7:30 came, several members of the church congregation lingered on the front steps, looking up. Soon, the spacecraft streaked across the eastern sky like a Roman candle. Satisfied that all was well, the churchgoers then hurried inside, just in time for the first hymn.

Back here at the waterfront, it is now T-minus-31 seconds - and the countdown is suddenly stopped. The crowd groans. Will this flight be called off, as it was on a previous day?

No, the count resumes. T-minus-30 seconds: the people cheer.

``There it goes!'' A woman with binoculars gets the first glimpse of flame. We are several miles away, but moments later we can all see the huge spacecraft, weighing 4,516,297 pounds at liftoff, moving straight up.

This is a special flight. It carries the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope, a device that will give mankind its best view ever of the distant stars and galaxies. The shuttle will also attain its greatest altitude ever as it soars into a 379-mile-high orbit.

The rocket ship punches through one layer of clouds, bursts back into view, vanishes behind another cloud, then soars into a blue-white sky.

All at once, the noise of the blastoff reaches us - first a low rumble, then a deep, growling roar. The ground under our feet trembles like minor earthquake.

The shuttle arcs higher and higher, while back on the ground we can see an immense black cloud of burned fuel swirling around the launch pad.

Then, it is over. In a matter of seconds, Discovery is out of sight, headed across the Atlantic toward Africa.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, with its usual scientific precision, later reports the liftoff time was 8:33:51:0492 a.m. - about 3 minutes behind schedule.

An almost flawless launch.

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