Last space shuttle launch is big Florida tourist draw

The astronauts who make up the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis have arrived at Kennedy Space Center, and tourists who are eager to witness the historic final shuttle launch are not far behind. Shuttle Atlantis is set to lift off for the last time Friday.

There is a common question for tourists to the part of Florida that is home to the space center.

“How far is the launch site from here,” asked a woman.

Space shuttle launches are a definite draw, not just to the Kennedy Space Center’s compound, but to surrounding towns. From souvenir t-shirts hanging in shops to the walls of restaurants adorned with images of shuttles and spacewalking astronauts to parks dedicated to the early days of the space program, the city of Titusville and the surrounding area live up to the name “The Space Coast.”

Some people who have property with a view of the Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad will open their land to tourists. Forty dollars buys a place to park a car with a view of the historic liftoff. And, just as soon as one lot operator began to post signs along the expressway, visitors pulled over to inquire about snagging a spot.

More than half a million visitors are expected in this community to watch the final shuttle launch. Every park, parking lot, pier and bridge will be filled with people angling to get a view.

The National Aeronautic and Space Administration is retiring the shuttle fleet after this Atlantis launch, so visitors are eager to witness history.

Geraldine Lewis is among them. She and her family drove to Florida from the midwestern U.S. state of Ohio.

“I teach kindergarten back in Ohio, and we watched the recent launch on television with my class and that kind of inspired me to stay for this launch and see it in real life with my two teenage sons,” said Ms. Lewis.

For the Lewis family, choosing a viewing spot was easy. She gestures toward an apartment complex near the waterfront.

“Actually, we have family that live right here in the condos right here to our left, so we have an excellent, excellent view,” she said.

The four astronauts who make up this final shuttle crew flew into the Kennedy Space Center themselves on July 4.

Astronaut Rex Walheim will be one of two mission specialists on board when the space shuttle Atlantis blasts off on a mission to resupply the International Space Station.

“It’s such a pleasure to come down here when a rocket is on the pad that’s got your stuff on it,” said Walheim.

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