Nebraskans who traveled to Florida to watch Ashland native Clay Anderson take his second trip into space got a double treat early Monday.
Fifteen minutes before space shuttle Discovery was to lift off, the astronauts' destination -- the International Space Station -- flew overhead, a bright star in the predawn sky.
On Wednesday, Discovery is scheduled to dock with the space station, where Anderson spent five months in 2007.
Discovery soared into a beautiful, almost clear, jet-black sky at 5:21 a.m. CDT.
"Oh, man, it was just incredible," said Clay's uncle, Jim Anderson of Ashland, in a phone interview from near the Kennedy Space Center. "The roar and the noise ... it just lit up the sky."
Four minutes before launch time, the gallery at the space center sang the national anthem, Anderson said.
"It was really emotional. It put a lump in your throat and a few tears in your eyes," he said.
"It was an incredible day -- one we will remember the rest of our lives," Anderson said.
Clay Anderson's sister, Lorie Hartzell of Hastings, who was surrounded by her family, called the liftoff emotional.
"It's so beautiful. It's just overwhelming," she said. "I cried. ... My brother is going up there."
Hartzell said family members got to see Clay twice this weekend. They joined him and other astronauts' families for a breakfast Saturday and then saw him again Easter Sunday during a tour of the launch pad area.
All seven astronauts came out of a bus, wearing bunny ears and waving, she said.
Jack Dunn, coordinator of the Mueller Planetarium in Lincoln, said Monday's launch was better than Clay's first one in 2007, which Dunn also saw in person, because Monday's was "essentially a night launch."
The fact the space station flew overhead just before liftoff, with a quarter moon hanging in the sky, added to the experience.
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"Only this guy could pull it off ... two launches going off on schedule," Dunn said.
After shuttle commander Alan Poindexter, Clay Anderson was the second member of the crew to climb into the shuttle at 1:06 a.m. CDT. According to the NASA launch blog, Anderson gave a quick salute to the closeout crew before crawling through the hatch.
For the liftoff, Clay Anderson sat in Seat 7, on the far-right side of Discovery's middeck.
Monday's launch was his second space flight and most likely his last. Only three more NASA shuttle flights are planned. President Barack Obama is scheduled to talk more about his administration's space plans during a Florida "space summit" April 15 -- three days before Clay Anderson and his colleagues are scheduled for return.
His first trip and 152-day mission aboard the space station earned him celebrity status in Nebraska.
Although born in Omaha, Clay Anderson considers Ashland, a town of 2,563 midway between the state's two largest cities, his hometown. He has made it his mission to engage students there and elsewhere in Nebraska to "reach for the stars and pursue their dreams," whatever they may be, and never quit.
Clay Anderson was his own good example of perseverance, having applied 15 times to become an astronaut before being accepted.
After his first space flight, Ashland honored him with a parade. He told the crowd: "I'm nothing special, I don't think. I worked hard, and I got lucky along the way."
Among his most ardent supporters was his mother, Alice, who died shortly after Anderson's first mission.
Hartzell said she thought of her mother while watching her brother soar into space.
As part of their three spacewalks, Anderson and Rick Mastracchio will remove and replace a 1,800-pound ammonia tank that supplies coolant for the space station's internal components. They will also replace a Rate Gyro Assembly, which is an electronics box that helps the station determine and maintain its flight attitude in space.
Discovery is scheduled to return to Earth on April 18.
Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 473-7243 or email@example.com.