MOUNTAIN VIEW -- Among the several thousand people who jammed into a grassy plaza at NASA's Ames research facility for a live telecast of an extraordinary rocket launch to the moon was the Brady bunch, who came all the way from Stockton.

The youngsters -- 12-year-old Kyra Brady and her brothers, Ethan, 10, and Alex, 9 -- were driven to the event by their grandparents more than four hours before the launch to make sure they got a good seat. And as they waited at the sprawling facility's Shenandoah Plaza, the kids were clearly pumped.

"They're going to launch from Virginia to orbit around the moon and collect dust," Kyra said. "I think it's pretty cool."

Alex wholeheartedly agreed. Acknowledging he's been a Buzz Lightyear fan for as long as he can remember, he noted solemnly: "I like space."

Dubbed the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer -- or LADEE -- it is the first spacecraft designed, built and controlled by NASA Ames. The launch from NASA's facility on Wallops Island, Va., was displayed for the Mountain View throng on a huge screen in front of a ghostly lit Hangar One, the former home of the USS Macon Airship now stripped of its contaminated outer covering. And as the last seconds to take off were counted down, the spectators fidgeted and snapped smartphone pictures.

Then at 8:27 p.m., when the rocket spit out a roiling fireball and roared into the night sky to begin a monthlong journey to the moon, the mass of people erupted in a thunderous cheer.

The $280 million mission, which will entail circling the moon less than 40 miles from its surface with a robotic satellite, is designed to answer several nagging scientific conundrums. One is whether lunar dust, electrically charged by sunlight, was the reason Apollo missions in the '60s and '70s detected a curious glow above the moon's horizon. Another is what makes up the moon's exceedingly thin atmosphere.

To help answer the last question, one of the spacecraft's devices -- a neutral mass spectrometer -- will look for trace levels of methane, sulfur, magnesium, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, water and other substances. What it discovers not only may give clues to the moon's geophysical mechanisms, scientists say, it also may help them better understand the atmosphere of Earth and other planets.

In addition, the mission will demonstrate the feasibility of a new form of communication from space. In the past, information from satellites has been relayed to earth via radio waves. But with LADEE, it will be sent using lasers. If the method works, scientists say, it will enable data to be sent much faster and in far greater quantities than is currently possible.

The NASA Ames crowd -- which local police estimated at well over 2,000 an hour before launch, as people still poured into the place -- included a wide mix of ages. Among them was 76-year-old Leona Kirby of Mountain View. Noting that her son works at Loral, which developed LADEE's propulsion system, she declared, "Anything that goes into space interests me."

Many others on hand were young children. Some wiled away the hours before the launch by frolicking on the grass -- somersaulting, spinning like tops and flinging toy airplanes. But others -- including 8-year-old Arun Gottipati of Cupertino -- insisted they were there to learn.

"I like space and pulsars," he said, adding that he has recently taken a class related to those subjects and is thinking of becoming an aerospace engineer.

He and the others in the crowd drew an appreciative nod from Yvonne Pendleton, director of NASA Ames' Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute.

"Your enthusiasm and your support keep us going," she told them. "We hope you are proud to be part of this effort."

Then, to rousing applause, she added: "To the moon we go."

Contact Steve Johnson at sjohnson@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5043. Follow him at Twitter.com/steveatmercnews