Excitement builds for next-to-last shuttle launch

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CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - On the eve of the next-to-last space shuttle launch, thousands of people streamed to the region for a chance to watch Friday’s fiery spectacle. Adding to the fever-pitch excitement: The first-ever visit by an entire presidential family.

Also watching Endeavour’s final liftoff will be the shuttle commander’s wounded wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The crowd estimate surged Friday to 700,000 _ or more _ as people scrambled to witness a launch before NASA closes out the 30-year era of space shuttle flight this summer.

“It’s history,” said Cotton Moore. He and his wife, Barbara, drove their RV to Jetty Park to get an up-close look. Their view from their home in Jacksonville, to the north, isn’t as good _ “like watching fireworks from a distance,” Barbara said.

Discovery’s final launch in February also drew large crowds _ but that was a mere 400,000.

“People standing on their cars, standing at all these different locations, things we probably haven’t seen since the late ‘60s when we were going to the moon,” said NASA flight director Jeff Spaulding. “That in itself is kind of awe-inspiring.”

As the countdown entered the final hours, forecasters revised their take on Friday afternoon’s weather. There was a 30 percent chance that low clouds or stiff crosswinds could force a delay, a slightly deteriorating outlook. The storm that pummeled the South was expected to weaken before reaching central Florida and be well past by the time NASA starts fueling Endeavour at dawn Friday.

Giffords‘ whereabouts, meanwhile, were being kept secret. She is married to Endeavour’s commander, Mark Kelly, who will lead a six-man crew to the International Space Station. They’re delivering spare parts and a $2 billion particle physics experiment aboard the shuttle.

A staff member for Giffords said in a Twitter update Thursday that she was enjoying Florida and “all the space action.” She arrived in Cape Canaveral on Wednesday, leaving behind the Houston hospital where she has been undergoing rehab for three months.

“Tomorrow will be a day in the history books,” her staff said in a tweet.

Giffords survived an assassination attempt Jan. 8 at a political event in her Tucson, Ariz., hometown. She was shot in the head; six people died and 12 others were injured. A 22-year-old suspect is in custody.

Besides all the “Godspeed Endeavour” messages sprouting outside local businesses, at least one sign was for Giffords. “Welcome Gabby and friends. Safe trip Endeavour,” read a sign outside an auto alignment shop, just a few miles south of Kennedy Space Center.

“Gosh, she’s just amazing and she’s an inspiration and all this good stuff,” gushed Peggy Ramsey, who’s run the shop with her husband for 30 years. “You can tell how excited I am just to know they’re close by.”

NASA officials said they still did not know where Giffords would view the launch. Obama and his wife, Michelle, and two daughters were to watch with NASA chief Charles Bolden Jr. from an area near launch controllers. The congresswoman was expected to be near the presidential entourage, in a private area at Kennedy Space Center.

Spaulding stressed that the launch team will not “try harder” to get Endeavour off on the 14-to-16-day flight, just because the president is present. The same rules as always will apply, he said.

It will be only the third time in NASA history that a sitting president attends a manned launch. It took John Glenn to lure Bill Clinton. He watched the 77-year-old senator return to orbit aboard Discovery in 1998. President Richard Nixon was on hand for the launch of Apollo 12 to the moon in 1969.

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