Friday night flight

NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. - The man at the next picnic table wondered out loud to his family about the rumored cancellation of the Shuttle Atlantis launch. "It must be the weather down range," he said with the authority of a NASA scientist. "There's no wind here."


The beer was ice cold as we sat on the veranda of the barbecue joint. The bright sky was Carolina blue. The temperature was perfect on a Florida evening, like every other Friday night, that was meant to be spent with family and friends. Who cares if there is a shuttle launch?John, the guitar player, kept singing a Merle Haggard tune. He asked one of the kids to tell the waitress "to bring the guitar player a beer."

The waitress announced there would be an eight-minute delay in the shuttle Atlantis launch. Her delivery was just as matter-of-fact as any network anchor.

"What does it say on the Internet, Em." asked sister-in-law Wendy.

I whipped out my trusty crackberry and browsed to the Orlando Sentinel mobile web site. There wasn't a word about scrubbing the launch. The top story detailed Paris Hilton's crying binge in a California courtroom. It was the same at the New York Times mobile site. Paris Hilton was the top story. The skinny girl for a moment was more important than the war in Iraq.

For a moment, shame, anger and disgust shrouded my thinking.

We continued to quip about the judge's Solomon-like decision to haul Paris back into court long enough to overturn the L.A. county sheriff's starlett catch and release program. Yes, we all admired the judge's strength of conviction. Had it been a mere civilian, we wouldn't even be having the discussion.

It's the cult of the celebrity.

But the guitar player was having none of Paris Hilton. "Where's my beer," John demanded.

"There's an eight-minute hold on your beer,'' laughed the man at the bar.

The girls rushed to pay the bill and we headed to the beach.

Promptly as 7:38 p.m. a shuttle watcher shouted, "There it goes." An audible sigh passed through the crowd gathered at the Flagler Avenue ramp in New Smyrna Beach. These were seasoned regulars on shuttle watch with a few tourists scattered in. The "ahs" were like those heard at a Fourth of July fireworks display.

Within seconds Atlantis arced right to left across the horizon. About the time the shuttle reached the proper speed, the boosters fell, once again gripped by gravity. As if on cue, the crowd clapped and headed for their cars.

The show was over.