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Atlantis Astronauts Arrive, Tourists Follow for Final Shuttle Launch

Suzanne Presto | Titusville, Florida July 05, 2011

The astronauts who make up the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis have arrived at NASA's 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 July 8.

There is a common question for tourists to the part of Florida that is home to NASA's Kennedy 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 your 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.

Viewing parking area operator: “The best time to come in? NASA opens at 4 a.m.”

Visitor “So you want us to show up at 4?”

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.

NASA 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 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.

But the Bermudez family, originally from Spain and now living in the midwestern state of Iowa, is having a harder time finding a spot to share the 'end-of-an-era' experience.

They made reservations at a campground three weeks ago, and while it could accommodate them during this week leading up to the launch, it was booked solid the night before the liftoff.

But Marco Bermudez says he is optimistic that he, along with his wife and three sons, will find somewhere to watch the 135th and final shuttle liftoff.

“I don't mind if it's the middle of the bridge," said Bermudez. "I don't mind on the road in a small spot. Obviously, this is a great opportunity for my three kids. I want them to be able to say in the future, 'I saw that. I saw that in person.'”

Which is what brings people to plots of land along the water, eager to pay for a parking spot with a view.

Bob Kirk is a realtor in Titusville, and he has leased land along the waterfront. He cleared out scrub brush, so the property can fit about 1,000 cars, and he's going to bring in portable toilets and food and drink vendors.

“I know that with a million people coming here, they are going to be stuck on the Beeline [Expressway] or somewhere if we don't have a place for them to go," said Kirk.

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.

Tourists such as Marco Bermudez share that enthusiasm.

“Wow! Incredible," he said. "I think I'm feeling the same as my kid is feeling right now. When this program started 30 years ago, I was a kid. I was 10 or 11, so for me, it's a kind of wish. “

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