SpaceX crowds came in droves despite downpours, tornado warning, pandemic

Britt Kennerly, Florida Today

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The crowd launched early, even though the SpaceX Crew Dragon didn't rise from Pad 39A as scheduled.

Space Coast locals and visitors from hundreds of miles away stayed through the drizzle and the downpours – even a tornado warning – before the eventual scrub of the first crewed launch from U.S. soil since 2011.

People hungry to watch history in the making – and perhaps eager to get out of COVID-19-forced isolation – made their way to Cocoa Beach, Space View Park in nearby Titusville, roadways, side streets and front yards across the Space Coast.

Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey told people this month to come watch the scheduled launch in person. The invitation ran contrary to NASA's recommendation to watch the launch via broadcast. 

Previously: Unlike NASA, Florida sheriff encourages people to come see historic SpaceX launch in-person

After the launch was scrubbed, spectators from the east side of the bridge blended with those on the west side of A. Max Brewer Bridge in Titusville, to start the walk back to their vehicles. They were hoping to see the first U.S. crewed mission in almost a decade,

Crowds, along with heavy rain, poured into coveted viewing spots across Brevard, but the mission was postponed scant minutes before the scheduled 4:33 p.m. launch.

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Even after word dropped that the launch was a no-go, many made plans to return for the next attempt, set for Saturday.

"Do you guys want to get a hotel room for Saturday night?”   Jake Mills asked after hearing the scrub announcement on his phone via the SpaceX YouTube channel. The Gainesville network engineer and 10 relatives had traveled to the Cocoa Beach Pier to watch the launch.

“Bummed out. But safety first, right?” said Mills, who has friends who work for SpaceX.

“I would rather wait until Saturday for a healthy, safe launch than to bend the rules and launch unsafely,” he said.

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Not many masks were sighted among the onlookers. Crowds were far smaller than for high-profile launches of the past and between the COVID-19 crisis and bad weather, nowhere near the crowd estimates circulating for weeks. NASA had urged spectators to stay away and watch the launch online or on TV because of the pandemic.

Matt Ward and Emma O'Halloran from Orlando parked next to the Beachline around 7:30. People started showing up at dawn to view the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon to the International Space Station.

Still, by early afternoon, traffic was blocked on the A. Max Brewer Bridge in Titusville. The bridge grew more crowded prelaunch time and became a sea of thousands of pedestrians headed west after the scrub. The Beachline causeway over the Banana River heading east or west was like a wet parking lot by late afternoon.

At Cocoa Beach Pier, which was no more packed than on a sunny, pre-pandemic weekend, the few hundred who braved nasty storms were primed for the event.

Before 10 a.m., surfers were catching waves, and TV crews had positioned their equipment at Rikki Tiki Tavern at the end of the pier, cameras pointed north toward the launch site. 

The pier opened at 11 a.m., and a handful of lunchtime patrons filtered in. The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic was evident: Officials shut down the pier from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. to clean and sanitize the area.

'We didn't want to miss it'

About 90 minutes before the scheduled launch time, Gulf Coast resident Olga Cole and her family took refuge beneath the Cocoa Beach Pier during a downpour.

She was born and raised in Moldova, an Eastern European nation that declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. She was raised to revere cosmonauts – but wore a white NASA shirt to witness the historic American launch.

“Because of the past of my country, the USSR, we prize the cosmonauts. But it is a big deal,” the 24-year-old said, holding her 7-month-old daughter, Katherine. “Space is common for everyone."

Olga and her husband, John,  23, a self-described Elon Musk fan, arrived Tuesday night from St. Petersburg.

Bill and Robbin Dick of The Villages in central Florida paid $40 for two spaces to park their 35-foot Winnebago Sunstar motor home at the pier. By 9 a.m., the couple had extended the vehicle's awning and set up folding chairs, prepped to watch NASA's launch coverage on TV.

"It's a historic launch. We're retired. And these are things we want to do. We didn't want to miss it," said Bill Dick, a retired New York City firefighter.

Russell and Gladia LaFontaine from Deltona set up a little canopy and fishing until launch, parked next to the Beachline. People started showing up at dawn to view the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon to the International Space Station.

At Port Canaveral, diners began trickling into Rusty's Seafood and Oyster Bar just before noon. At 50% capacity, the restaurant holds about 150 people.

"We're bringing in business, definitely, but it's not what we'd like to bring in." said Rusty Fisher, owner. "Just managing people, that's the big thing, making sure they behave themselves."

Follow reporter Britt Kennerly on Twitter: @bybrittkennerly 

Contributing: Rick Neale, Eric Rogers, Suzy Leonard, Tim Walters, John Torres, Tim Shortt, Craig Bailey, Malcolm Denemark and Jay Cannon of the USA TODAY Network.

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: SpaceX launch: Plenty of crowds, traffic despite weather, pandemic