The 30-year US space shuttle program is drawing to a close. On Friday, at 3:47 p.m., Endeavour will embark on its final mission, and mark NASA’s second to last shuttle mission before the program ends.
Endeavour is the only space shuttle to be christened by school children, named after a British vessel captained by James Cook that sailed the South Pacific in the 18th century. The youngest spaceship in the US fleet, the Endeavour was delivered in 1991.
The 14-day mission starts Friday with a launch from Kennedy Space Center. Forty-five thousand people are expected to attend a ticketed viewing at the center and more than 700,000 people have made their way from all corners of North America to various beaches and roads around the launch area.
On its last mission the Endeavour will carry an Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, spare parts, two communication antennas, and a high-pressure gas tank to the International Space Station.
The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer sifts through space in search of elusive dark matter and anti-matter by sensing for charged particles. Scientists have long said that there have to be equal amounts of matter and anti-matter in the universe, but finding anti-matter has been hard.
Among those attending the event will be President Barack Obama and his family and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt in Arizona last January. Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, is commanding the mission, and Giffords is taking her first extended leave from hospital to watch the launch.
Kelly took a month off to help his wife recover after the shooting and rejoined his team in February. Speaking about his wife’s leave from the hospital, Kelly said, “It’s something that she’s been looking forward to for a long time.”
It’s not just Giffords who is excited about the launch. Americans from across the country are realizing this will be one of the last chances they have to see a US shuttle launch. Traffic backed up on roads leading to the Kennedy Space Center and a drive that should have taken an hour took many drivers five. License plates from almost every state could be seen on the roads around the center, and visitors were paying premiums for parking and sleeping space.
One road-side parking space cost $20 for the night, and one lucky driver was happy to have found it. “It’s kind of like a big barbecue,” said Clint Kelly, who had driven with his mother from Springdale, Ark.
Other business is booming as well. Restaurants, hotels, and even private apartments are renting tables and beds to curious and excited visitors.
For those who couldn’t make it to this launch, the final shuttle launch is scheduled for June 28, when Atlantis will embark on its last voyage. Start booking now, though: the last launch may attract even more people than this one.