It's party time on Florida's Space Coast.
An estimated 1 million people, including 5,000 journalists, are living it up in anticipation of the first shuttle launch in 33 months.The flight to Orlando, Fla., from Salt Lake City was loaded with future shuttle rubberneckers. Brevard County officials are planning for the onslaught with increased patrols and warnings to tourists to not bother returning to their hotels Wednesday night or they'll miss the launch, set for 9:59 a.m. EDT Thursday.
For many onlookers, the site of the orange and white bird bathed in the brilliant white lights is a welcome reminder that the U.S. space program is experiencing a rebirth.
Al Klepps, a retired Rocketdyne mechanic, is making his first trip to see a shuttle launch after more than a decade of building the motors used in the orbiters.
"He always said he wanted to go see it, and we had these tickets," Anita Klepps said. "We decided the beginning of last week, and all of a sudden our daughter (who lives in Titusville) gets a call, `How would you like some company?' "
Al Klepps retired two years ago. He sees this flight as a must-do for America.
"They just have to have it," he said as the 727 cruised over Kansas. "Face it - it's helping the economy of the country."
The presidential commission that investigated the Challenger explosion determined that a faulty O-ring seal on a Morton Thiokol booster rocket allowed hot gases to leak and ignite the huge external fuel tank. Seven people were killed in the nation's worst disaster in the history of manned space flights.
Since then, the boosters and virtually every aspect of the rockets have been scrutinized in the $450 million redesign effort.
"They really tried to put the best engine on that thing they could develop," Klepps, 63, said. "After Challenger blew up, they really went into that motor and changed it."
Thiokol and NASA engineers spent the past 21/2 years redesigning and reaffirming predictions on the modifications.
Discovery skipper Frederick Hauck told reporters at the last formal news conference before the flight: "I think we have the right balance of approach to this mission, and that is we've got to get going back into space because we are not going to serve this country well or anybody well by doing it in a manner that would compromise the safety of the flight."