Stars in their eyes, fans gather for last shuttle launch

For some, it’s the first launch. For everyone, it’s a last chance.

Here at Space View Park, space fans have come to witness the final blastoff, to watch the column of flame zoom higher, to hear the rumble — and to imagine themselves soaring into space.

The space shuttle is retiring. And while astronauts will keep flying in the near future — on Russian rockets — they won’t lift off from Florida. A bit of the space dream is dying.

“I always wanted to be an astronaut, I was a typical kid,” said Justin Butner, 27, a Washingtonian who road-tripped to this park, a waterside monument to the real astronauts. “I’ve accepted that’s not going to happen.”

But from his tent pushed up against the water’s edge, Butner — and his space-fan neighbors in the impromptu village that has sprung up here — will get a vicarious ride into orbit.

From Philadelphia, New York, Washington and even Reading, England, space dreamers have settled in here, ready to outlast the tropical storms that threaten to postpone the big event. Across the Space Coast, authorities expect a crowd of 750,000 to a million to gather from all corners of the globe, all yearning for a glimpse of their own space dreams.

The early birds at Space View Park arrived Wednesday night, 36 hours before the final flight of shuttle Atlantis is to begin. By Thursday morning, some two dozen outposts had been set up on concrete sidewalks and grassy squares. Two orange tents sat out at the end of a pier, precious yards closer to liftoff.

Laurel Whitlock, 25, hasn’t missed any of the 17 launches in the past four years — and she’s not going to miss this one. With her camp chair up against the railing of a pier, she’s got a square-on view of NASA’s boxy Vehicle Assembly Building a few miles across the Indian River. Just to the left, she points out, is launchpad 39A, its four lightning towers poking above the trees.

Whitlock settles into her chair, an airport paperback, blue cooler and battery-powered spray fan at the ready for a 24, 48, even 72-hour vigil.

“I love the manifest destiny,” she says. “People risking their lives to further human exploration and science. It’s inspiring.”

And nostalgic. Whitlock’s family, which moved to Orlando from Hawaii when she was 4, drove to the launches. The soaring spaceships became a family touchstone.

Tim Shook, 48, and a friend road-tripped from Philadelphia on Tuesday. Shook remembers the Apollo moon landings he watched with his father as bursts of patriotic optimism squeezed between nonstop Vietnam war footage. “You see something like that as a kid and you’re hooked,” he said.

Shook has never seen a launch, never felt the roar of a rocket. But sure, he’s dreamed of riding one. “Who hasn’t?” he asks.

Bob Arnold, 60, worries that today’s kids won’t grow up with that dream, that optimistic striving for the future. Arnold himself grew up on the Space Coast and saw Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts soar heavenward. For every shuttle launch since 1997, the retired fireman and park volunteer has set up a P.A. system to broadcast the countdown to the crowd. He likes to watch the faces of children at the big moment, see the light of the rockets reflected in their excitement.

With the shuttle program ending, those moments will, too. “The imagination of space,” he says, “that’s what’s lost.”

Arnold has seen the designs for new space capsules built by American companies like SpaceX, which by 2016 might ferry people to orbit from nearby Cape Canaveral. But Arnold doesn’t much care for them. They’re not spaceships, not like the shuttle. “It’s like we’ve gone back 40 years,” he says. “What have we gained?”

For past launches, city workers shooed world-be campers from the park. This time, the mayor came by to say hi.

Just after noon, a tropical deluge pounds the outpost. Campers pull on plastic ponchos and scurry across the parking lot. Others dive into their tents. This tropical front doesn’t bode well for the scheduled launch. NASA has downgraded the chance of a Friday liftoff to 30 percent.

Two hours later, during a break between punishing downpours, the campers are still resolute. “We’re staying,” says Butner. “I just bought an umbrella.”

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