Pitching their tents, parking their campers and pulling out their lawn chairs, hundreds of thousands of people lined rivers and roadsides Thursday to grab good viewing spots for the launch of the shuttle Discovery.
At dawn traffic was backed up around the Kennedy Space Center, and highway embankments were teeming with spectators searching for breakfast and setting up binoculars and cameras stands. Some even parked illegally outside one of the center gates, risking having their cars towed.Joan Heller, a spokeswoman for the Brevard County Sheriff's Department made "a guesstimate of about quarter of a million, but who really nows?" She said the crowd definitely appeared "lighter than 1 million," which had been NASA's projection for the number that would come to see America's first manned space launch since Challenger blew up 32 months ago.
"It's going to work this time," Doug Miller, 22, of Wilton, Conn., said Wednesday outside a tent he and a friend set up in a field across the Indian River from the Kennedy Space Center. "We want to see it."
"It's almost like it's starting all over again," said Dean Lax, 21, a senior at Emory Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
Lax and fellow student Joseph Reilley, 27, saw the Challenger explosion from their campus, a 50-minute drive north of the space center. They pitched a tent in a field Wednesday morning to be on hand for Discovery.
In addition to the public, about 3,000 VIPs, including movie stars and members of Congress, planned to watch from a site on the space center grounds. A record 5,000 journalists sought accreditation to cover the launch, but only 1,800 were being allowed at the main press site. The rest were moved further away from the launch pad because of safety concerns.
Campers lined many stretches of road shoulder along U.S. 1 in Titusville, and souvenir stands and portable toilets were put up on all major highways.
But despite the many early birds, most of the crowd was expected early Thursdayday, according to police and tourism officials.
"We've had people coming in, but we've not been bombarded yet," Jerry Eads, assistant chief of police in Titusville, said midday Wednesday.