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For spectators, an out-of-this-world show

They came from all corners of America, enduring the Florida heat, humidity and launch-day traffic to perch by the aptly named Mosquito Lagoon and stare at an unremarkable dot on the horizon.
Visitors gathered in the heat and humidity at Kennedy Space Center's Space View Park cheer and snap photos as the space shuttle Discovery takes flight.Scott Audette / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true"><p>The Washington Post</p></a

They came from all corners of America, enduring the Florida heat, humidity and launch-day traffic to perch by the aptly named Mosquito Lagoon and stare at an unremarkable dot on the horizon.

Some were anchored to the same spot for nearly seven hours, guarding their prime waterfront territory. Others drove through the night to ensure they could be a part of the nation's return to space.

At 10:39 a.m. Eastern time, the space shuttle Discovery rewarded their patience and perseverance handsomely.

Unknown to most of the thousand-odd spectators gathered at Space View Park, the laws of physics meant that they were all about to experience liftoff not once but twice.

As the countdown reached zero, the unremarkable dot turned into a retina-burning fireball, shepherded into the sky with bellows of dark smoke. As it cleared the launchpad, which lies 11 miles to the east, spectators got their first real glimpse of Discovery and cheered.

"It's the only way to travel," Eric Parsons of Palm Beach, Fla., said as he watched the shuttle pierce the clouds in a graceful arc.

But as the NASA audio feed crackled in the background and a lone bugle played the Air Force hymn, it soon became clear there was something missing: the noise of the engines consuming 500,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

Forty seconds after liftoff, the long-anticipated roar finally arrived. It started as a low and distant rumble and increased in intensity, like an ever-growing wave washing over the crowd.

"It was awesome, like the sound of a volcano erupting," said Baylee Carroll, 7, of Gainesville, Fla., who said she wants to be an astronaut. Unlike other children, she refused to put her fingers in her ears.

The sight of a successful launch -- the first in 2 1/2 years -- had an emotional impact on several in the crowd.

"I'm so pleased to be an American," said Marcia Peterson of Brooksville, Fla., who arrived at 5:30 a.m. to claim a waterside seat.

As NASA controllers know well, launch day is about preparation, equipment and timing. So, too, for the spectators at Space View Park.

They brought with them all manner of accessories: coolers, mosquito tents, battery-powered fans, portable TVs, and an array of sophisticated folding chairs with footrests and drink holders. Several marked their territory with blankets, and by 10:30 a.m. there was barely a free square inch by the water.

The first to arrive were David Valencia-Ebel and his partner, Lori Davidson. They showed up at 10 p.m. Monday night after driving 3 1/2 hours from their home in Bradenton, south of Tampa.

Valencia-Ebel initially tried to sleep in his car but gave up at 4 a.m., conscious of competitors lurking in the parking lot who could nab the best view at any moment. So he marched to the waterfront, unfolded his chair, and spent the next seven hours watching the waves and the occasional dolphin.

"The moon was right next to the launchpad, and it was really, really nice. It was almost like it was set up on purpose. Very romantic," said Valencia-Ebel, 31, an economist. After the launch, he acknowledged he shed a tear, and he vowed to return.

About 250,000 spectators had been expected to descend on the east coast of Florida to watch the rescheduled launch. For the organized, the best viewing spot lay on a causeway in the middle of the lagoon, seven miles from the launchpad, reached by buses from the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex.

But for those without one of these prized tickets -- long sold out -- Space View Park has become one of the region's premier spots to watch a shuttle launch.

"The shuttle is going northeast, in pursuit of the space station, so the sites further north are better vantage points. Space View Park is as far north as you can get and still see the launchpad," said Ray Byrd, who worked at Kennedy Space Center for 34 years as a pneumatic and propellants engineer.

Space View Park and its monuments to the first American astronauts were built in 1995, but locals were coming to this stretch of coast long before.

"Now it's so popular the locals have started avoiding it," said Bob Arnold, who is in charge of the park's maintenance and the monuments.

On launch days, he ensures the crowd can hear an audio feed from NASA and is often the first person to realize whether a mission has been aborted.

"You know they are in trouble when they start going 'urrr, urrr.' We call it the NASA salute."

Perhaps the most excitable of all the spectators were the true space buffs, identified by their ham radios tuned to 146.940 megahertz to hear a relay of the NASA commentary.

"It's excitement and exhilaration. Television just keeps that spacecraft in the center of the box. When you're out here you just see that thing going up and up and up," said Robert "Ozzie" Osband, who styles himself a "Space Ranger" and runs a space Web site.

Osband, a space fan since he was 8, teaches introductory classes for wannabe astronauts, despite never having been able to apply because he lacks a college degree.

"Today means we are going back where we belong, which is back up in space."