A woman walks to her spot along Indian Creek Lagoon in a Titusville, Fla. to watch the launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in the Dragon crew capsule, Wednesday, May 27, 2020 from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. The two astronauts are set to travel on the SpaceX test flight to the International Space Station. For the first time in nearly a decade, astronauts will travel to space aboard an American rocket from American soil, a first for a private company. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

For launch spectators, storms more worrisome than virus

May 27, 2020 - 2:27 pm

TITUSVILLE, Fla. (AP) — For the spectators gathered along the Space Coast on Wednesday for an astronaut launch, the rumbling thunder, darkening clouds and then a drenching downpour were more worrisome than any pandemic.

At a park in Titusville with a clear view of the Kennedy Space Center launch pad 15 miles away, hundreds of spectators sheltered from an off-and-on drizzle under tents and umbrellas on lawn chairs in the hours before the scheduled launch. They turned out to witness the first launch with astronauts from Florida in almost a decade, and the first by a private company, SpaceX.

NASA and SpaceX had urged spectators to stay at home for safety reasons. But officials in Brevard County, home to the Kennedy Space Center, rolled out the welcome mat in an effort to jump-start a tourism industry hit hard this spring by coronavirus-related lockdowns.

About a third of the people at the Titusville park wore masks as encouraged by health officials to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

The Brevard County Sheriff's Office asked visitors to practice social distancing as they watch the launch of astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a test flight of SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Kennedy for the launch, while the number of visitors inside was drastically curtailed.

About two hours before the scheduled launch, a downpour sent many spectators running to their cars to wait out the storm. A short time later, a tornado warning was issued for the area.

Mike Rine, who set up a folding chair before the storm to watch the launch at Space View Park in Titusville, found the mixed message about attending a bit confusing, so he came but left his elderly father at home in Leesburg, Florida.

“If the president and the vice president can come...," said Rine, who was wearing an Apollo 11 anniversary T-shirt. “But I've got a mask."

For Scott and Lisa Ward, to be able to watch a launch from Florida after a nine-year absence was worth a 125-mile drive from Okeechobee in the heart of Florida. Scott Ward had watched several launches in person during the shuttle era.

“That’s what it’s about, getting back to exploration,” said Scott Ward, who is retired.

Patricia Gottenger and Nelly Marro tied a rocket ship balloon to their lawn chairs as they set up to watch the launch a bit away from the rest of the crowd at Space View Park. The Venezuelan natives wore face masks and acknowledged they picked a spot on the edge of the park as a safety precaution to watch their first launch.

“This is historic,” said Gottenger, who drove up from South Florida for the day with Marro.

Erin Gatz came prepared for both rain and pandemic. Accompanied by her 14-year-old daughter Regan and 12-year-old son Gavin, she brought face masks and a small tent. The children have faint memories of watching one of the last shuttle launches almost a decade ago when they were small.

“I wanted them to see the flip side and get to see the next era of space travel," said Gatz, who lives about an hour away in Deltona. “It's exciting and hopeful."

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP

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