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Mom waits, not so patiently, for astronaut to come home

Mary Frances Key admits she is not usually an early riser. But on Thursday, she had a good reason to be up before dawn.

Key's son, astronaut Norman Thagard, was about to take part in one of the most historic missions in space history. So Key, who retired to Dunnellon from Pinellas County 10 years ago, was out of bed by 6:30.

"I made sure to get everything out of the way _ the grocery shopping, everything," she explains, settling into a comfortable recliner near the television.

Live coverage of the delicate maneuvering that would link the giant Russian space station Mir to the shuttle Atlantis began around 7. Key expects to be glued to the set for the next few days, as reports of the docking continue. Her son, who will turn 52 on July 3, is scheduled to return to Earth aboard Atlantis, along with two Russian cosmonauts, on July 7.

Sipping her coffee, her eyes moving from the set only briefly, she apologizes for chatting about her six children, 14 grandchildren and recent trip to Birmingham to see her first great-grandson, 20-month-old Christian.

"I'm rambling because I'm so nervous. It's scary. Can you imagine being all the way up there with no way out and no way down? I'd be going cuckoo."

Key, 68, and her husband, Robert, 70, have had plenty of time to get used to their son's space adventures. A physician and former Navy pilot, Thagard has been with NASA since the late 1970s. This is his fifth venture into space. And it's not the first time he has made space history.

The first American to spend time aboard Russia's space station, Thagard recently broke the U.S. record for the most days in space. He's at 108 days and counting. Thagard also holds the American record for the most cumulative time in space: 604 hours logged in four separate shuttle missions.

Key says she understands the significance of what her son has achieved. Like Thagard, she believes in the space program and hopes the U.S. will have its own space station built by the end of this century.

But she is also a mother whose son has been floating 250 miles above the Earth since March.

"He looks a little thinner, but I guess that's normal," she says, rising to get a better look. "Oh, there's a nice shot of him. C'mon Norman, say something in Russian."

When the CNN reporter explains that Atlantis and Mir will remain linked for the next seven or eight days, Key exclaims: "Oh, my heavens. I thought they were going to pick him up and bring him home. Well, I know where I'll be. Right here."

Key lists her son's accomplishments as if reading from a resume: high school valedictorian; scholarship to Florida State University; Navy pilot with 163 combat missions in Vietnam; medical school; accomplished pianist; and, finally, selection by NASA as one of 35 astronauts out of more than 7,000 applicants.

To say she is proud would be an understatement. But it's not the fame or the fact that children may one day read about Norman Thagard in their history books.

It's because her eldest son is doing what he has always wanted to do.

"Norm's life is exactly as he wants it," she says. "He loves a challenge, and that's what this is. He'll be with NASA as long as they'll keep him."