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08 July 2011

Space coast jammed for last launch

Image: Monday, Nov. 25, 2002 file picture shows the space shuttle Endeavour over New Zealand as it approaches the International Space Station for docking. (AP Photo/NASA)

Cape Canaveral - Tourists crowded into central Florida Thursday as Nasa forged ahead with plans to launch Atlantis on the final mission of the US shuttle program despite forecasts of stormy weather.

Up to 750 000 people are expected to pack Florida's "Space Coast" for a glimpse of the last shuttle lift off, set for Friday at 11:26 (15:26 GMT), before the three-decade programme closes forever.

"Weather is not looking good for launch," warned shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters, adding there was a 70% likelihood that cloudy, wet weather will prevent the shuttle from taking off.

Nasa managers said they would continue to meet throughout the day to decide if conditions would allow them to proceed with the planned launch.

"If we get into a scenario where we scrub very late in the count we would probably (go to) a 48 hour scrub scenario... to give our teams a chance to get home and get back to work," said Jeff Spaulding, Nasa test director.

That could mean the next launch attempt would be Sunday, when weather conditions improve to 60% likelihood of favourable conditions.

However, Spaulding stressed that if Friday's bid is scrapped, launch opportunities remain open on Saturday, July 9 and Sunday, July 10. Nasa is also discussing the possibility of launching on July 11, but that option is not yet confirmed.

The rotating service structure around the shuttle is set to be rolled back at 12:00 (16:00 GMT), rather than 14:00 as originally planned, and weather at tanking early Friday was 80% favourable, Nasa said.

8 000 jobs cut

If the shuttle is not delayed by weather, throngs of space fans who hope to catch a clear view of the fiery blast off could be disappointed due to gray skies and low clouds, according to Winters.

A 2 400m cloud ceiling around the area on Friday means "if they are on the coast here they will see it up to that point," said Winters.

"We don't expect severe weather... it is just our typical tropical stuff."

Hotel signs in Cocoa Beach bragged about offering the best views to tourists while waiters and waitresses chatted at length with visiting diners about the upcoming launch and the end of the shuttle programme.

As many as 8 000 local jobs are being cut from Kennedy Space Centre as the shuttle program ends, delivering a staggering blow to a resort area that has largely depended on space-related interest for tourist dollars and income.

The shuttle, carrying a skeleton crew of four US astronauts, is headed on a 12-day re-supply mission to the International Space Station.

When Atlantis returns, it will remain at Kennedy Space Centre as a tourist attraction, while the other four US shuttles take their places in museums across the country.

30 years

The first US shuttle flight took place in 1981. Over the years, the shuttle carried heavy cargo and up to seven crew at a time to the International Space Station and back.

When the US programme ends, the ability of astronauts to travel to low-Earth orbit will be restricted to transit aboard the three-seat Russian space capsules.

Private US companies are competing to build a next-generation space capsule that will once again carry Americans into space, but such plans are not expected to be complete before 2015.

Meanwhile, near the countdown clock at Kennedy Space Centre, the US space agency showed off its design for the next multi-purpose crew vehicle which aims to take astronauts to deep space destinations like Mars or an asteroid in the coming years.

"Americans are going to be in space for the foreseeable future," said Nasa administrator Charles Bolden.

- SAPA/News24