CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The 3,000 VIPs stood mesmerized, their eyes fixed on the space shuttle Columbia roaring into space Sunday, the bleachers quaking from the concussion of the engines and solid rocket boosters.
They oohed-and-aahed and shouted 'Go Baby Go,' staring into the bright early morning sky long after Columbia was out of sight over the Atlantic Ocean. The moment they had waited for had come.
Former astronauts in the crowd couldn't contain their exuberance as the shuttle -- it's solid rocket boosters spitting bright orange flame -- rushed skyward.
'Terrific,' shouted Russell Schweickart, a veteran of Apollo 9. He monitored the Columbia's progress with a calculator and cheered with the crowd when launch commentator Hugh Harris called separation of the boosters two minutes after liftoff.
'Oh, I wish I was on that thing,' moaned Ronald Evans, part of the Apollo 17 crew that flew the last lunar mission in 1972.
Even Neil Armstrong, the commander of Apollo 11 and first man ever to walk on the moon, was buoyant as the shuttle jumped toward the heavens.
'It was a beautiful thing,' said Armstrong. 'I was thinking how pleased John and Bob must be to be off the ground.'
'I'd love to do it again,' said Sen. Harrison H. Schmitt, R-N.M., an astronaut on Apollo 17. 'I was tremendously excited and envious.'
California Gov. Edmund J. Brown, an avowed space buff, was stunned by the power of the launch, the first he'd ever seen.
'It was great. I didn't know quite what to expect. It was spectacular,' said Brown who postponed his return to California to watch the launch. 'There's a real sense of power here.'
Others VIPs in the bleachers next to Mosquito Lagoon about 3 miles from Launch Pad 39A, let out warhoops when the engines roared and the shuttle soared, releasing the tension that began building in the predawn.
They arrived, beginning about 3 a.m.. At first it was just a trickle of cars and limousines, but as the 7 a.m. launch time neared they flooded in on giant tour buses.
They sipped coffee and ate danish, watching the sun rise. They cheered when the countdown clock passed the T-minus-9 minute mark where the launch stalled Friday with computer problems. There were more cheers at T-minus-5 minutes and again during the final seconds.
'I wish I was in the firing room,' said Walter Kapryan, a veteran Apollo launch director, watching his first liftoff. 'The adrenalin is really pumping.'