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Space fans gather to celebrate Discovery launch

By Geneen Pipher
Shuttle fans line up in droves along the Banana River in Florida.



Space Exploration
Kennedy Space Center

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- Thousands of space junkies from all over the nation are here to witness the launch of the shuttle Discovery.

The shuttle fleet has been grounded since February 2003 when Columbia broke apart in the skies over Texas minutes before landing.

Scores of people endured the blazing heat and humidity to line up at the Kennedy Space Center visitors' center ticket window in hopes of scoring last-minute passes to view the launch up close.

They found that passes aren't issued on the spot, but that didn't diminish their enthusiasm.

Most space fans come expecting to be wowed. Matt Melis, who flew in from Cleveland, Ohio, to see his first launch, said the shuttle's return was a cause for celebration.

"We've been flying for a long time ... since the late '50s and early '60s when the Mercury capsules first launched from here, and it's hard to imagine America not flying," Melis said.

"There's a void in this country, I believe, when we're not flying, so it's a cause for exuberance and jubilation and everything that goes with that when we get back to flight again."

Kathy Lemaster of Houston, Texas, said she couldn't wait to see Discovery take to the sky.

"This is my first shuttle shot to see so I am very, very, very excited," she said. "I can't wait to feel the rumble and see the slope and watch it go up. I know I am going to be jumping up and down and clapping."

Kevin McDonnell from Elmira, New York -- home of STS-114 commander Eileen Collins -- said he is here to cheer on his hometown hero and experience the excitement of a shuttle launch.

"It's just awesome. The first time [I saw a launch] I didn't know for sure what it was going to be like -- it was like wow! It was [like] the effect of God. It was pretty neat."

Down on beach, many tourists seemed oblivious to Discovery's moment in the sun, preferring to sun themselves instead.

A few blocks away at the Ron Jon Surf Shop, the launch was on many people's minds.

Pam Grossman of Houston, Texas, said she expected the day to be emotional.

"It's exciting and tense all at the same time," she said. "I am sure we'll feel a lot of tears tomorrow and a lot of celebration."

Julie Kabboord, a Cocoa Beach native, said the shuttle's return was very important to the local area, but she would be watching the launch with an anxious eye.

"I am a little bit nervous for the astronauts," she said. "It is kind of scary since there [have] been accidents, but it is very exciting, and I think it is a big lift for the workers of the space center because it's been so long since they've had a launch."

Back at the space center, many space watchers said they will be keeping the lost Columbia crew in their thoughts, but it is important for space exploration to continue in spite of the risks.

"I think it's human nature to explore," said Eric Merrill, a college student from Hancock, Michigan. "I think it's stupid to say that because there are risks or there are costs involved that you shouldn't do it.

"Humans have always been that way. Lots of people have died for that cause and that's unfortunate, but it's what they chose to do. I am no more concerned than I'd be for anything else. Every adventure like this has risks," Merrill said.

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