- Associated Press - Monday, May 16, 2011

TITUSVILLE, FLA. (AP) - Manny Kariotakis got goosebumps watching the last launch of Endeavour, even though the space shuttle disappeared Monday behind clouds seconds after blasting off from the pad 10 miles away.

“We’re part of history!” said Kariotakis, a 50-year-old day care owner from Montreal, while viewing the liftoff on U.S. 1 in Titusville.

Hundreds of thousands of spectators joined Kariotakis in that history, witnessing Endeavour’s last launch and the second-to-last mission before the space shuttle program ends. But it was a smaller turnout than the crowds that viewed the last shuttle launch in February and Endeavor’s failed launch attempt in April.

Blame the early morning hours.

Endeavour blasted off at 8:56 a.m. February’s launch and last month’s attempt were in the afternoon.

“With the launch being so early, it’s going to deter people from coming here,” said Tom Summers, 48, who hawked shuttle T-shirts, caps, mugs and medals in front of a trailer in the dark, early hours of Monday.

Projections had put Monday’s crowd at 500,000, more than the number that saw shuttle Discovery’s final hurrah in February. Titusville Assistant Police Chief John Lau guessed the crowd at between 350,000 and 400,000.

The last shuttle launch is slated for July.

Traffic on Monday was nowhere near what it was in February when spectators sat for hours on the roadways between Cape Canaveral and Orlando, turning highways into parking lots.

“There was never any backup,” said Sgt. Kim Montes of the Florida Highway Patrol “I never saw any stoppage.”

For retired snowbirds Shirley and Jerry Goulet, Endeavour’s liftoff was worth a wait. They had come out last month to see Endeavour off and were disappointed when an electrical problem kept it grounded for another two weeks. They postponed their return to New Hampshire to see the liftoff from U.S.1 on the Indian River.

“We enjoy the excitement of cheering on the astronauts,” said Shirley Goulet, 73. “Not as many people get excited about it anymore but we are.”

Added Goulet: “To actually feel the launch when you’re across the river is something else.”

It was the first launch for 4-year-old Jolie Hodges and her 2-year-old brother, Jonah. Their mother, Samantha Hodges, tried to explain to them the concept of space and showed them photos of the astronauts and Endeavour from NASA’s Facebook page. But they were still having trouble getting their minds around the idea.

“”They say it’s a spaceship and I tell them we’re going to watch a spaceship,” said Samantha Hodges, of St. Augustine. “They’re so little, it’s hard for them to understand.”

Sisters Anita and Andrea Johnson decided Sunday at the spur of the moment to load up their car with a case of beer and a cooler of ice water and Diet Cokes and drive from the 110 miles from Tampa for the launch.

“We usually stand in our backyard to watch the launches but this time we wanted to see it up close and personal,” said Anita Johnson, a 57-year-old retiree, as she pulled lawn chairs out of the trunk of her car.

Stan Oliver purchased a last-minute ticket from Ohio to Tampa on Thursday, and then drove Sunday night to Titusville. Oliver, who manages an assisted-living residence, slept in his car overnight.

“This is a once in a lifetime event,” said Oliver, 41, who lives near Dayton. “It was worth it. The roar was intense. I’m glad I came.”

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