At 6:04 a.m., Venus, the morning star, fluttered one final, coquettish wink at the earthlings toying with her future and then disappeared in the glare of the sun rising out of the Atlantic.
The huge orb bathed humankind's frailties -- the anger, the obscenities and the snarl of machines in a world-class, Manhattan-style traffic jam on State Road 3 leading to the Kennedy Space Center -- in an other-wordly tint of Strange Encounters yellow.
The scene was pure Americana: a confluence of the nation's two most storied examples of technology -- its hostile jam of automobiles on concrete strips leading toward the phallic-shaped future, the spaceship on the concrete throne of Pad 39A; the technology trap of the earth-bound, the technological means to get away from it all.
More than 1 million people jammed the beaches and byways of this mid-Florida sand dune -- as many as came here for the Apollo 11 moon launch -- to watch the maiden flight of the Columbia.
On the highways, the technology was breaking down and the people with it. Winnebagos ran out of gas, Camaros and tempers overheated. Beefy tourists flashed the high sign at reporters careening past them, plunging their rent-a-cars across the crab-grass highway shoulders, splashing through shallow bayous whose bridges were blocked.
Out beyond the Atlantic surf, beyond the security zone, the shrimp boats were beginning their daily toiling, Yankee flags edging uneasily past the Soviet flags flying from the three Russian trawlers that always cruise off the cape during these rocket launches. r
Inside the trawlers, a foreign technology was working -- tapping the countdown, also presumably tuned in to the gruff transmissions of the Florida traffic cops trying to keep American drivers from killing each other.
Then the first glitch occurred, just a little flaw in the space technology, too much water in a fuel cell -- a "high pH factor," the space people called it.
The countdown clock stopped at T-minus 20. A buzzard cruised low from its perch atop the 40-story Vertical Assembly Building, swooping the length of the 150-foot American flag painted on the VAB's side, over the VIP stand and did a reconnaissance over the forest of camera tripods and their gun-like long lenses trained on the Columbia space shuttle three miles away.
Then the real glitch hit: a spacecraft computer that wouldn't talk to its four Columbia soulmates, or sensor mates or whatever it is that computers have for companionship. The astronauts, lying on their backs in the cockpits, noticed it first. Their computers weren't talking to each other.
Out on State Road 3, the people were talking to each other, in snarls. Inside Columbia, the emotionally castrated computers showed more sense. They just stopped talking.
At the VIP stand there were 31 congressmen, none of whom seemed VI, and Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. and singer John Denver. The distinguished guests began to get restless. California Gov. Brown, who has been nicknamed "Moonbeam" and wants his high-tech state to have its own space program, talked for a while and then retreated into a nearby trailer.
By 9:59 a.m., when the mission finally was scrubbed for at least two days, the gremlins seemed to be working in men's minds as well as computers' brains.
On the beaches, where folks had been waiting since the night before for a glimpse of the shower of fire and light, the serious beer-drinking got started. On State Road 3 the traffic was easing but not the moods. The buzzard made one more flyby and cameras arched upward from a thousand tripods for at least one action shot.
On Mosquito Lagoon, a Fiberglass mockup of the Columbia's cockpit, which the television network commentators had been using for a nice visual backdrop all week, broke loose from its mooring and was floating, nose tilted downward, aimlessly in the water.
The garbage men, who have not been brought into the modern age, started across the grounds, spearing litter with their little pointed walking sticks.
A brown van broke in an aimless sweeping circle in front of the grandstand. Two troopers who had gone modern, their automatic weapons and jungle-camouflage fatigues as well as their attitudes proving it, jumped out. They poked two sleeping camera technicians who had been there all night for the big event and were snoozing in the warm sun now.
A space agency spokesman, speaking from the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, appeared on a large television screen and confirmed the news that the astronauts, John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen, had spotted the problem first.
The astronauts were alerted directly by the computer, the man from Houston said, which blipped out the message in its own language.
"When you translate it from computerese," the man from Houston said, emphasizing that such translations are almost instantaneous for men trained in the modern age, "the computer said, 'I am not communicating with the primary system.'"