- Associated Press - Monday, May 16, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - NASA fueled Endeavour for a Monday morning liftoff on the next-to-last flight of the space shuttle era, confident an electrical problem that grounded the mission more than two weeks ago had been fixed.

The mission commander is Mark Kelly, the astronaut husband of wounded Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who’s back for the second launch attempt.

“Who’s ready for the best show on Earth? Giffords‘ staff said in a Twitter update hours before liftoff.

Kelly and his five crewmates waved, gave a thumbs-up and shook their fists in the air as they headed to the launch pad in the pre-dawn hours. Liftoff was slated for 8:56 a.m.

The mood was upbeat this time around. Meteorologists also were optimistic.

Just two hours before launch time, however, an old patch on a thermal tile near the cockpit hatch came out. Technicians repaired it, and preparations continued.

The astronauts posed for a group picture at the launch pad Monday, before climbing into Endeavour.

“Took my last shower for a few weeks,” reported astronaut Mike Fincke in a tweet. “The flight docs gave a good look-over. My only issue: too much boyish enthusiasm. (no known cure).”

Endeavour is bound for the International Space Station one last time before heading to retirement at a Los Angeles museum. The shuttle’s experienced, all-male crew will deliver and install a $2 billion particle physics experiment during the 16-day flight, as well as spare station parts.

One final shuttle mission remains, by Atlantis in July.

Going into the weekend, NASA had anticipated a launch day crowd in the hundreds of thousands. Besides the Kennedy Space Center workforce, as many as 45,000 guests were expected at the launch site. Law enforcement agencies told NASA to expect up to 500,000 spectators to jam area roads and towns.

But across the Indian River in Titusville at sunrise, the crowds were thinner than last month’s try on a convenient Friday afternoon that even attracted President Barack Obama and his family.

“It’s just so dang early in the morning,” griped John Stonewall, who charged $20 a car for parking on his empty trailer park. Six cars were parked there at dawn; 70 had squeezed in for the April 29 attempt.

Sisters Anita and Andrea Johnson drove across the state from Tampa for a front-row view.

“We usually stand in our backyard to watch the launches but this time we wanted to see it up close and personal,” Anita Johnson said as she pulled lawn chairs out of her car.

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