Crowd of Thousands Turns Out to Behold an 'Awesome' Sight

Times Staff Writer

As the radio announcer counted down to the launch of the space shuttle Discovery on Tuesday, Julie Fulcher stood up from her beach chair at Jetty Park and said a prayer.

When she spotted a cone of fire arc into the air, she let out an enthusiastic, "Woohoo!"

Then she cried.

"I just prayed for a safe trip," said Fulcher, a 42-year-old nurse from Palm Bay, Fla.

Many of the 4,000 people who crowded this small beach park, one of the most popular launch viewing sites, said they worried that the insulating foam from the craft's external fuel tank could again fall off and endanger the shuttle mission.

Fulcher, like many others, breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the orange fireball soar into the sky.

The roar of the rocket engines sounded across their viewing area, where she could see a long plume of white exhaust rise from the launch pad.

"That's the biggest firework we've ever seen on the Fourth of July," said Fulcher's mother, Brenda Daniel, 66, who had come from Kentucky to see the launch.

The bright skies on Tuesday brought out a good crowd for the launch, said lifeguard Mark Watkins, 42.

"The weather is nice, so everyone wants to go out," he said. "Of course, it's the Fourth, too."

People pitched beach umbrellas less than 5 feet from one another along the coast at Jetty Park.

The shuttle launch was canceled Saturday and Sunday because of bad weather, and NASA had decided to "stand down" on Monday. With clear skies Tuesday, it looked like this time the shuttle would launch on schedule.

As the countdown reached just a few seconds, people began shouting the numbers with the radio. They roused their children from making sand castles and made them stand and look at the sky.

Just a few seconds after the launch, sounds of clapping and cheering filled the air as the shuttle came up over a bank of trees. "There it is!" people shouted along the beach.

The light show lasted for about a minute, as the smoke and fire tapered off and two tiny orange dots -- the shuttle's solid rocket boosters -- separated in the sky.

Then came another round of clapping and cheering.

"It was that far away, but we could still feel the rumble," marveled Paul Whiteman, 40, of St. Petersburg. Whiteman had come with his wife, children and some neighbors. The group screamed and whistled as the shuttle took off.

He said he didn't want NASA to give up manned space missions.

"If we don't send them up, what are we going to ask our kids to be when they grow up?" Whiteman said.

Sweating in the muggy summer heat, Fulcher's mother said she remembered the Cold War race to the moon and how proud she felt when she saw pictures of Gemini astronauts being plucked out of the water.

She loved watching Tuesday's event just 15 miles from the launchpad and hearing the rumble that roared through the beach a few seconds after liftoff.

"I was a little worried because of Challenger," she said, referring to the shuttle that exploded shortly after takeoff in 1986, killing all those aboard. "I kind of wish they would revamp the whole thing.... If it's something we got to do, we should do it right."

Fulcher's brother, Michael Hobgood, 47, had driven down from Kentucky to watch the launch. Both took a week off work to make sure they would see the fireworks.

The launch delays, and the concerns about insulating foam, made both of them worry about the future of the shuttle.

"I didn't want to see any lives lost," Fulcher said. "And I don't want to see the shuttle fail because then they'll scrap it."

With its successful launch, they said they thought the shuttle had made a comeback.

"That was awesome," Fulcher said, clutching her hand to her heart. "I just feel amazement that they are actually able to do this."

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