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NASA doesn’t keep official records on how many people come to watch every launch, but everyone agrees this time will be huge - possibly record-breaking. Local police agencies estimate that more than 700,000 people will watch, most from beaches, parks or lakesides.
From inside the Kennedy complex, 45,000 guests will be watching Endeavour’s last liftoff -- President Obama and his family will be here, as will Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, on leave from her rehabilitation in Houston.
There’s an air of pride and jubilation from all the attention, and yet there are undercurrents of sadness, even something close to grief. Trey Brouwer works for the NASA contractor United Space Alliance.
“It’s an amazing vehicle and it’s an amazing team and folks that we work with in Houston do an outstanding job. And it’s sad to see.”
Later this summer, United Space Alliance will lay off around 2700 workers, about 800 of them from the Houston area. Brouwer works on the international space station, so he’ll probably keep his job.
Another contractor, Warren Woodworth, says he can probably count on at least another year of work. He’ll help retire the shuttle fleet and get the last three shuttles ready for display in New York, LA, and here in Florida. Woodworth lives in League City. He says it will be hard to find a job that offers this level of personal investment and satisfaction.
“It’s an overwhelming sense of pride, you think in terms of going off and working other places, you know like a car factory or something like that. You know you work hard to do your work, right? But then the car leaves and you kind of lost touch of that particular car. But with us, it’s a case that you know we see the full spectrum of what occurs with the vehicle.”
But many at NASA say the end of the shuttle program should not be cause for alarm or gloom. Astronaut Mike Barratt called it a “hiccup” in the development of manned space flight.
“The shuttle program is ending and a lot of people are focusing on that but the space station is complete. We’ve been flying humans on it continually for over 10 years now, which is a record. And we’re certified for operations at least through 2020, hopefully to 2028. And so that program will go on vigorously.
Barratt points out that U.S. astronauts will continue to work in orbit. And the Endeavor, in fact, is bringing up a significant science experiment, a particle detector that will examine cosmic rays for evidence of dark matter and antimatter.
“And now our focus shifts to utilizing the station and squeezing as much science and technology development as we can out of it.”
Barratt admits he’s sad to see the shuttle community disband and its members disperse to private companies or other NASA projects. And, he acknowledges there is a danger that Americans will expect less from their space program.
“Gaps occur. When pauses occur in activity, people get comfortable with it. So one of our jobs after the last shuttle lands is to be sure that people stay as uncomfortable as possible with our posture of not being able to fly humans in space. And I think when you consider that very soon, there will be only two countries with the capability of putting humans in space, the U.S. will not be one of those countries, it will China and Russia.”
Endeavour’s final flight will last two weeks. Her final home will be the California Science Center. Reporting from Kennedy Space Center, I’m Carrie Feibel.