Second-to-last Space Shuttle launch is big tourism draw

Space Shuttle, Space Shuttle Endeavour
Tomorrow’s launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour has turned into a major tourist event, the Associated Press reports. NASA estimates half a million people will show up for their second-to-last chance to see a shuttle launch. Other estimates vary from 250,000 to a whopping 700,000. That could rival the crowds that came to see the first Moon mission.

Hotels are sold out and homeowners near John F. Kennedy Space Center are reaping the benefits by renting out spare rooms. Local businesses are also seeing a boom. The AP estimates the launch could pump $15 million into the local economy.

Let’s hope so, because when the last shuttle goes into space this summer, there won’t be any more launches for quite some time. NASA hasn’t finished developing anything to replace the aging shuttle fleet and transport to the International Space Station will be the job of the Russians for the time being.

The Endeavour launch is scheduled for 3:47 EDT tomorrow. It will be mission number 134 for the fleet. The final mission will take place June 28 or later and the honor will go to the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

I’m not surprised this is getting so much attention. I grew up with the Space Shuttle and I’ve always wanted to go to a launch. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll make it. I’ll be cheering, though, especially for mission commander Mark Kelly, husband of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot by a crazed gunman in January. She’s recovered enough to be present when Kelly heads for the stars.

I’ve never met Kelly, but I have met Gabrielle Giffords. She’s the younger sister of a college friend and I met her twenty years ago when she was a bright young Fulbright scholar. While I only chatted with her a few times I always had the impression she’d go far. My friend and I drifted apart, as college friends often do, but over the years I always paid attention to Gabrielle’s career. I wasn’t surprised in the least when she became a Congresswoman. And I won’t be surprised if I see her back in Congress one day.

Have a speedy recovery, Gabrielle, and enjoy the launch for me.

[Image courtesy NASA]