The only sure thing here this morning were the mosquitoes, which Doug Asquith was swatting with his right hand as he drank Coors with his left.

"Just my luck to drive all the way from Jacksonville," Asquith said, "and have the clouds follow me. I figured we've been watching rockets take off for 20 years here, so it was about time to see one come down."

But, of course, it never did--at least not within the viewing range of the few thousand people who gathered along the western bank of the Indian River here in hopes of catching a glimpse of the space shuttle Challenger, which was scheduled to return to the Kennedy Space Center at 6:53 this morning.

The landing had been one of the most anticipated events of the shuttle program for local residents, who have never had a first-hand chance to see a space mission come to an end. The Brevard County Sheriff's Department originally anticipated a crowd of no less than the half million who watched the shuttle rocket into space last Saturday.

But as the mission advanced toward its conclusion, the landing seemed progressively less appealing as a spectator event. When weather conditions made the return to Kennedy problematic, the president canceled his much-touted visit to the shuttle runway because "he didn't want his presence to have any effect on the decision." This from Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler, who turned out for the non-event along with Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole and Reagan daughter Maureen. "I'll be very disappointed if I don't see it land," said Heckler, who, like many others, wound up very disappointed.

"In a word, this is terrible, the smallest crowd I've ever seen for any shuttle event," said John Shearer, a local resident who was busy not selling "Ride, Sally Ride" T-shirts alongside Rte. 1. "Everybody's confused. First they were going to wait until Saturday for the weather to clear. Then it's on. Then it's off. Then there'll be two chances out of three to land. Then there's rain. Then it's back on but now they're telling people that they won't be able to see anything from outside the space center."

Indeed, NASA's only spotty performance in the mission came in predicting when and where the shuttle would land. On Thursday morning the director of the shuttle program, Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, said on the "Today" show that the landing had been postponed until Saturday. Later in the day Abrahamson said that he had erred, and the event was set as planned for this morning in Florida. Thursday night, at a party hosted by Gannett Co. chairman Allen Neuharth, Abrahamson said, "The weather is looking dubious," even as NASA administrator James Beggs said, "This is just heavy dew."

But not just NASA officials were confused. "We heard two radio reports, " said Carl Nelson, vacationing here from Port Hueneme, Calif. "One said the weather was fine for a landing, the other said forget it. We figured we were here so why not take a chance and see what happened?"

By 6:35 a.m., when NASA finally decided to land the shuttle in California at Edwards Air Force Base, most of the people on the shore here already had given up. In the NASA newsroom at the space center someone posted a red placard that said simply, "RATS!" A woman in a blue long-sleeved T-shirt tied on a black armband.

The disappointment may have been best summed up by astronaut Bryan O'Connor, who was in Houston and immediately after touchdown said to the shuttle crew: "The good news is that the beer is very, very cold. The bad news this morning is that it's 3,000 miles away."