Shuttle's Final Launch Gets Mega Attention

Weather permitting, the space shuttle Atlantis will bast off Friday for the last time at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Thirty years after the first shuttle launch, we now await the final liftoff.

INSKEEP: If the weather permits, and that's a big if right now. The shuttle Atlantis is supposed to blast off at 11:26 Eastern Time from Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

MONTAGNE: We're going to check in with correspondents in several locations. And we're going to begin with NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce, who is at Kennedy Space Center.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Hi, Nell.

INSKEEP: Hi, Nell. Where are you exactly and what do you see?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I'm looking out at the launch pad right now. I can see the shuttle there. It's still a little bit dark here but the sky is starting to get light. And I can see the big countdown clock. And for a nice change of pace, it's not raining.

INSKEEP: Not raining, and we'll see how that affects things. It's really a spectacular view we're seeing here on television as well. The shuttle is lit up as though this is a movie, which in a way it is, I suppose. It's a television event.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, there's plenty of cameras here to see it, that's for sure. I don't know if there's movie cameras but there's all hordes of media; reporters, TV crews, there's tents full of people. There's a lot of excitement here for this historic launch.

INSKEEP: So are they going to see anything?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That is the big question. It's too soon to tell.

MONTAGNE: You know, Nell, you've covered many launches. This one seems pretty spectacular. But in your mind, how does this compare?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, definitely the level of attention this has gotten, I mean even just driving here this morning from our hotels, you could see people lined up, you know, along the water in their cars sort of camping out hours and hours before the launch. More than usual. There was a lot of traffic.

Once you get here, the level of media interest is huge. There's people everywhere. And so that's definitely a big difference.

The other difference is just the sense of history and the sort of bittersweet sense among the workers at Kennedy Space Center as they think about the fact that something they've worked on for a long time - in many cases, for some workers, decades - is about to come to an end.

MONTAGNE: Well, Atlantis is going down and will certainly go down in history as the last mission. But it does have a mission.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It does. That sometimes gets lost in the coverage about the fact that this is the last. There are four astronauts. They're going on a 12-day mission up to the International Space Station. They're going to be delivering a lot of spare parts and supplies, a lot of food, because the shuttle is just like a big space truck. And so on this last trip up, NASA wants to stock the orbiting outpost with as much as possible before the shuttles are retired.

INSKEEP: Well, is this the end of NASA's role as a space trucking service then?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA is planning to turn routine flights up to the station and back over to commercial companies. That's the plan and that will allow the agency to return to its exploration of deep space roots. They're trying to build a new capsule and rocket that would go beyond the station, out maybe to an asteroid, maybe back to the Moon.

MONTAGNE: And, Nell, stay with us here for a moment. Thank you, though, for the these last comments.

That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. She's at the Kennedy Space Center.

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