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A front-row seat to space shuttle history

Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five Four. Three. Two. One. Liftoff!
With those 10 seconds, and about 15 more before Atlantis disappeared into the clouds, the 16-hour round trip became a priceless “Kodak moment” to witness history. NASA’s 30-year shuttle program came to an end, and I had a front-row seat.
Who could have imagined, 56 years ago, that my boyhood buddy from Jesup would be a key player in the space program?
While I was standing in the lush St. Augustine grass of his Indian River backyard, Charles Abner was in the Kennedy Space Center’s control room, helping click down the seconds of the final launch that weather odds predicted would not happen on schedule.
Even Charles had his doubts as he kissed his wife, Nancy, good-bye the night before. Rain and clouds threatened a delay, a scrub. Still, crowds packed Titusville and Florida’s central Atlantic coast. Estimates ranged from 250,000 to 1 million.
Despite a 70 percent chance of rain, people started huddling 24 hours before the iffy liftoff. They camped under tarps, tents and umbrellas, as if waiting for the Rose Bowl Parade.
Over on Indian River Avenue, I asked, “Nancy, how many guests are you expecting?” With a shrug and a smile, she said, “Oh, it could be 100. I just don’t know.”
But she had an idea that her house, pool deck, three-tiered terrace, yard and 350-foot dock would be teeming with sightseers. Most people she’d know, some she wouldn’t.
Next door, neighbors were charging $60 a car to park and potty. Nancy rolled her eyes and shook her head. For dozens of launches, she and Charles have unselfishly unfurled the welcome mat. Every inch of their front yard becomes a squeeze-in-if-you-can parking lot.
Inside, Nancy scurried to make sure no one went hungry or thirsty.
In a restaurant several years ago, Nancy overheard Canadians talking about not having a spot to view the launch. True to “the Abner way,” Nancy walked over and solved their problem. Friday morning, her British Columbia friends were back to watch the finale.
And just because NASA is retiring the shuttle program doesn’t mean Charles is planning to quit, just yet. He proved that in 2008, when he retired as chief engineer of shuttle processing. He transitioned into consulting for a NASA contractor. His engineering expertise is in high demand as he helps explore ways for private enterprise to pick up where the government left off.
Since graduating from Georgia Southern and knocking on NASA’s door in 1967, Charles has had his head in the clouds.
But his feet are firmly on the ground. He has a knack for peering around problems and seeing what’s possible. The Abner home underscores that.
Twenty years ago, Charles was jogging by a dilapidated two-story house. He knew the river was in the back, but a jungle blocked the view of the water. He asked Nancy to investigate. Vision, timing and enormous sweat equity turned the 1880s ramshackle fish camp into a waterfront showplace.
With help from his son, Allan, and his brother, Sonny, Charles aimed his dock straight toward NASA’s launch pad 10 miles away.
And there I stood on July 8, aiming my camera at Atlantis as the 4.5 million-pound craft defied the weatherman’s odds and made history, propelling four astronauts out of sight.
Cheers, raucous applause and dabbing of tears preceded an eerie wave of silence, signaling the end of a Space-Age era.
And then for an encore, there was a ground-jarring boom. The soles of my feet tingled, and the hairs on my arm lifted as if to salute the shuttle.
Several houses away, I could hear a faint, spontaneous burst of a few bars of “God Bless America.”
Yes, indeed.
Charles and Nancy, this applause and cheer are for you.

Dink NeSmith is president of Community Newspapers Inc. in Athens and represents the 10th Congressional District on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. Send e-mail to dnesmith@cninewspapers.com. This column was printed in the Athens Banner-Herald.