- Associated Press - Thursday, April 28, 2011

TITUSVILLE, Fla. (AP) | Florida Space Coast hotels are sold out, residents are renting bedrooms and restaurants are doubling food supplies as thousands of tourists arriving for Friday’s launch of space shuttle Endeavour are boosting a region fearing its economic future.

The launch is the next-to-last for the program and President Obama and his family will be in attendance.

“The shuttle program is winding down and this is something that is on everybody’s bucket list,” said Rob Varley, the area’s top tourism official. “For many people, it’s like ‘Uh-oh. We only have two more chances to see one.’ “

The mission is also attracting extra attention because its commander is Mark Kelly, whose wife is Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. She is recuperating from a serious head wound suffered in a January assassination attempt, but arrived at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday and is expected to watch the launch from a private location.

Crowd estimates vary widely Brevard County expects 250,000 visitors will attend. NASA’s launch director says 500,000. And Mr. Varley is guessing 700,000. That figure would rival John Glenn’s space shuttle launch in 1998 and those from some of the Apollo moon launches in the 1960s and 1970s.

Endeavour’s launch may be one of the last economic jolts the region gets as the space shuttle program winds down this summer. Economic prospects for the area are precarious. The Space Coast is still reeling from Florida’s housing slump, NASA contractors already have laid-off thousands of workers and the unemployment rate is more than 11 percent. Empty storefronts dot some shopping malls and vacant condos are common along the beach.

Shuttle launches usually generate about $5 million in economic activity for the Space Coast. Given the huge crowds expected, the Endeavour launch could generate more than $15 million, Mr. Varley said.

Hotel reservations are almost impossible to get, so some homeowners and apartment building managers are renting out spare bedrooms and empty units.

Tony Simons placed an ad on Craigslist hoping to rent two empty units at the Seacoast Arms Apartments in Titusville, about a mile from one of the most popular places to view shuttle launches on the Indian River. “Come be a part of that history!!!” the ad said.

He got one rented for the launch but was still looking Wednesday for tourists willing to spend $300 a night on the two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with a three-night minimum, just like the hotels. The launch is providing some extra cash for Mr. Simons, the apartment complex’s manager, especially as the recession forced him to lower rents from $750 to $500 a month.

“Heaven yes!” Mr. Simons said when asked if he was expecting a small economic pop from the launch. Other businesses are, too.

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