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Tens Of Thousands Witness Discovery Launch

September 29, 1988

TITUSVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ Flags waved, cameras clicked and tears flowed as a smaller-than-expected crowd of about 250,000 people along Florida’s Space Coast cheered the shuttle Discovery liftoff late Thursday morning.

″Oh my gosh, it was great,″ said 11-year-old Tommy Mathis of Detroit. ″It was neat watching ... it just looked like a ball of fire at first going up. And it went into a cloud halfway up.

″As soon as it went out, it was beautiful,″ he said.

Patricia Mathis, 33, his mother, said tears just streamed down her face.

″I thought the most intense part was when they realized they were past that Challenger stage.″ Challenger blew up 73 seconds after launch on Jan. 28, 1986, killing its seven astronauts.

The crowds turned out to be far smaller than the 1 million authorities had been advised to prepare for. Mitch Varnes, a spokesman for Kennedy Space Center, said reports of the large crowds may have kept some away.

But those who risked traffic jams and launch delays seemed more than satisfied they came.

″There’s an awful lot of people that this means a whole bunch to that it didn’t mean a thing two years ago,″ said Robert Zsolczai, a butcher from Miami who has seen 16 shuttle launches. He arrived Wednesday night but said he had a hard time settling to sleep in his van, which was decorated with signs wishing NASA and the Discovery crew good luck.

″Every 20 minutes you’ve got to look at it (the shuttle), make sure it’s there and all that,″ he said before launch. ″And I’m not the only one. There’s a lot of them that do that with binoculars. They sit here all night. They know it’s there but you’ve got to keep reassuring yourself.″

Many people were sleeping in cars parked along side U.S. 1 as the sun rose Thursday. Lines grew long at restrooms at gas stations and restaurants after they woke up.

By midmorning, traffic in Titusville had slowed to a trickle as attention turned eastward, toward the shuttle, which could be seen across Indian River.

Mette-Mari Wolden, 23, of Larvik, Norway, prolonged her stay in the United States to see Discovery’s launch. ″It will probably be something I’ll have a memory of for the rest of my life,″ she said.

Woody Poynter, 32, of Sacramento, Calif., flew into Orlando Wednesday, where he was unable to find a car to rent. The cab driver who picked him up at the airport, however, offered to drive him to Titusville when he came with his family.

The crowds along the Indian River overlooking the space center counted down the final few seconds with a NASA announcer heard on radios and broke into shouts of encouragement as Discovery lifted off.

They quieted down when the spaceship disappeared behind a layer of clouds, but the yells began again when it reappeared and became louder when the crowds heard the announcement at 2 minutes, 4 seconds after launch that the boosters had separated. A booster flaw was blamed for the Challenger accident.

Moments later, the crowds began heading for their cars and home.

Joan Heller, a spokeswoman for the Brevard County Sheriff’s office said shortly after launch that she guessed about a quarter-million people were on hand, although no formal count is attempted.

″It’s about the same size or smaller than the first launch, larger than the most recent launches, but not nearly as big as anticipated,″ she said.

No arrests, major traffic problems or health problems were reported.

Three U.S. senators and about 20 congressmen traveled from Washington to watch the launch. Among them were the three lawmakers who have flown in space: Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, the first American to orbit the Earth, and Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, and Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., both of whom have flown on shuttle flights.

Some 2,000 government officials, dignitaries and other NASA guests watched the launch at a VIP viewing site about 6 1/2 miles away from the launchpad. Actor John Travola, who said he’d love to go into space, was among them.

″It’s a frontier that has hope and future, and that’s important to all of us as a group,″ said Travolta, who said he is an avid jet pilot.

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