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Crowds throng space center for final shuttle launch

As the last opportunity to witness the launch of the space shuttle drew near, massive crowds converged Thursday on the Kennedy Space Center.

The threat that rain would delay the launch of Atlantis was doing little to deter the visitors, who were parking on the sides of roads and filling every hotel room for miles. A 50-mile traffic jam extending all the way to Orlando was expected Friday.

To space enthusiasts, the outpouring was confirmation that the federal government may have miscalculated how much public attention was focused on the space shuttle program, and disappointment over the plan to suspend U.S. manned launches over the next several years.

Photos: Space shuttle program | 1972-2011

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“There is no other government activity where 1 million people come to watch,” said astronaut Chris Hadfield, referring to a crowd estimate by the Space Coast Office of Tourism. “That’s a benchmark measure of how people view this.”

Indeed, people who have waited for decades to see a shuttle launch made long drives to fulfill their dreams. Retired Air Force Sgt. Fred Lippert, 72, who drove from Kentucky with his wife, knew he was heading into a traffic nightmare and that rain may postpone the launch, but he was not concerned.

“I always wanted to see one in person, and now I got my chance,” he said.

About 300 current and former astronauts who have flown aboard the shuttle made their way to the space center, said former astronaut Michael “Rich” Clifford, deputy program manager for the shuttle at Boeing Co.

“We’re going to have a party on the day of the launch,” he said.

NASA officials said there was only a 30% chance that the weather would permit the launch. But they said they would probably continue the countdown, including filling the shuttle’s external tank with millions of gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen in the middle of the night.

The shuttle’s main engines were scheduled to fire at 11:26 a.m. EDT Friday. If rain did delay the launch, NASA officials said they had opportunities on Saturday, Sunday and possibly Monday to make additional attempts.

Tourism officials said they did not expect the crowds to lose interest easily. Budget hotel rooms were going for $299 in nearby Titusville, and charter boats were charging as much as $300 to take viewers out to sea for the launch, said Rob Varley, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism.

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Tickets to view the launch from inside the space center were being auctioned on EBay for $500 each on Wednesday and reportedly had been much higher earlier in the week. The tourism office’s estimate of 1 million visitors was based on hotel and car reservations, as well as past launches.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Varley said.

The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Highway Patrol and Titusville police said they were braced for a mess, particularly on the main highway from Orlando to the space center.

“It will be bumper to bumper,” said Sgt. Kim Montes of the Florida Highway Patrol. “During the last launch, we had people stopping on bridges and people pushing their strollers across roads with 55 mph speed limits. It’s going to be worse this time.”

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Lt. Todd Hutchinson said Titusville police will have an officer at every intersection, and officials worried there would be more people than public parking places in the city. “Our roads are not designed for this,” he said.

Crowds were already forming at hobby and souvenir shops, purchasing polo shirts, baby outfits, virtually anything with a shuttle stamped on it. At Space Shirts, a retailer down the road from the space center, people were packed shoulder to shoulder. Eager buyers were waiting in their cars outside for parking spots in the store’s small lot.

“It’s hard to be prepared for something like this,” said Brenda Mulberry, owner of the shop, in between swiping credit cards. “We’ve been busy taking care of people all day here.”

NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said at a news conference inside the space center that the end of shuttle would not mean a less ambitious U.S. space program, but instead a future in which NASA would dedicate itself to the more ambitious goals while leaving routine space travel to private companies.

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The practical result, however, is that NASA will rely on Russia to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

“The fact that we have to rely on the Russians makes me ill,” said Titusville Police Chief Tony Bollinger. “Our politicians have let us down.”

Photos: Space shuttle program | 1972-2011

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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william.hennigan@latimes.com


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