Young, elderly, others stop to watch the blastoff Interest isn't widespread as in Glenn's first trip, but many are fascinated

October 30, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Liz Bowie, Jackie Powder, Joe Nawrozki and Carl Schoettler contributed to this article.

Three minutes before the blastoff of space shuttle Discovery, Sara Cambias was nervous.

"I don't want anything to happen to him," said the Sykesville Middle School pupil.

In unison, Cambias' classmates shouted the last 10 seconds of yesterday's countdown and then watched 77-year-old John Glenn roar into the stratosphere to become the oldest astronaut ever -- and possibly a new hero to these cheering, clapping eighth-graders.

"I just think it's pretty interesting that a guy that old would actually be brave enough to go into space," said Kristina Letmate.

Added Matt Heisch: "I felt my heart stop for a minute."

Probably not since Neil Armstrong's moon-bound rocket left Earth in 1969 have so many eyes watched a spacecraft burn across their TV screens.

In classrooms, lessons took a midday hiatus. In retirement homes, card games folded. And in malls, shoppers crowded around banks of TVs tuned to the historic ascent of the septuagenarian astronaut.

The afternoon blastoff did not bring the nation to a halt, which may indicate an American jadedness toward outer space. But many watched straight-backed and anxious during the countdown, and heaved sighs or cheers as Discovery rose into the heavens -- 36 years after Glenn became the first American in orbit.

At the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville, Helen Thayer watched with tears in her eyes. As a NASA programs analyst 36 years ago, she had watched Glenn's three-orbit space flight from the Goddard Space Flight Center, at Greenbelt.

"I'm so overwhelmed with emotion," she said. "I haven't been this thrilled since the '60s."

Her peers whooped and applauded like teen-agers. "Awesome. Go John!"

Jean Porter also dabbed her eyes with a tissue as she stood before a bank of more than 60 televisions at Towson Town Center and watched the giant ship strain against gravity.

"Glenn is a hero and I still believe in the U.S.A., in spite of Bill Clinton," she said.

Bill Jeffries, a retired investment broker, stopped by "to hope it NTC up, to push that ship up with my will along with everybody else in the country."

The dozen onlookers at BGE's appliance store paled in comparison with the 200 who watched the O. J. Simpson murder trial verdict at the White Marsh store.

"Space has become routine," said Rick Bolton, assistant store manager.

Even at the Johns Hopkins University, reactions were lukewarm among physicists who have worked on the Hubble Space Telescope and the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE). Though Romani Thaler wore her "John Glenn returns to space" T-shirt, others were too young to be nostalgic.

"It's good PR for NASA," said Tim Johnson, who watched the first shuttle launch in 1981 at age 9 and now works on FUSE. "I think most of the public has gotten used to this."

But at the U.S. Naval Academy, where busy academic schedules usually push aside world events, students trickled into a dorm lounge to watch between classes.

For a school that has supplied NASA with 50 astronauts, Glenn's launch carried a special resonance. Some came to Annapolis largely because it is an astronaut breeding ground.

"It's feasible that I could do this someday," said Robert Stimis, a midshipman from Little Rock, Ark., who went to "space camp" in fifth grade and plans to major in aerospace engineering.

Added classmate Colin Dunlop, "I think everybody at age 7 wants to be an astronaut."

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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