TITUSVILLE — Lane Rickman remembers America's space triumphs vividly.
His heart raced as he watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. He recorded the country's first shuttle launch on his VCR. And he felt unbridled excitement when the United States landed a probe on Mars.
But Rickman, 69, never saw a shuttle launch. Even though the Space Coast is only two hours from his Riverview home, scheduling conflicts and scrubbed takeoffs kept getting in the way.
Until Friday. It was his last chance.
Although bad weather threatened to ground Atlantis, he and his wife, Mary, loaded up coolers and umbrellas and made the trek with their grandchildren Brooklynn, 6, and Dylan, 8.
At dawn, they pulled into a park off U.S. 1, laid out a blanket for the kids and settled onto their chairs. Then they waited.
Dylan and Brooklynn happily tossed rocks into the Indian River. They shouted when they saw a manatee and a horseshoe crab.
"Dylan," Lane Rickman said, drawing his grandson's attention away from his portable DVD player. "This is a moment in history. It'll be in the textbooks, and you can say, 'I was there. I saw it for myself.' "
Dylan looked thoughtfully at his Papaw, then returned to his movie.
The boy says he'd like to go into space, but he isn't as enthusiastic as his younger sister, who danced around chanting, "I'm a Martian! I'm a Martian!"
Brooklynn said waking up early Friday felt like Christmas. Her grandma even let her pick out cupcakes.
"For celebration," Brooklynn explained.
What does the last shuttle launch mean to a child? The universe is still abstract, the science advanced, making takeoff seem like magic.
Brooklynn thinks it's neat that orbiting astronauts can catch floating food with their mouths.
Dylan says without gravity, it's impossible to lose a game of catch.
"That's the coolest thing about space," he said.
The Rickmans know the children's memory of Friday's launch may fade, but it'll never disappear. Maybe it'll be an inciting moment, like Lane Rickman's own.
It was 1963, and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun came to lecture at Mississippi State University where Rickman was studying engineering.
Armstrong had not yet walked on the moon, and the idea that a person could fly through space fascinated Rickman, who immediately became a space junkie.
Like thousands of others in Titusville on Friday, he said he's sad to see the program close.
Sending astronauts up in other countries' shuttles isn't the same, he said.
"I don't like the idea of us taking a back seat to China, Korea and Japan," he said.
Still, he's hopeful the United States will continue to explore. Perhaps in his grandchildren's lifetimes space travel will be more accessible. Maybe humans will travel to Mars.
With 12 minutes until liftoff, the Rickmans walked to the railing and peered across the Indian River. The children looked up from the horseshoe crab.
10, 9, 8 … they counted with the crowd.
A red streak shot up from the ground. Lane Rickman smiled. "That's beautiful," Mary Rickman said.
The children gasped, their eyes glued on the sky.
A minute later it was over, and Brooklynn announced she was ready for her celebratory pink cupcake.
Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.