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Crowds grow, weather threatens as NASA preps for the final shuttle launch

Thousands have flocked to the Space Coast to watch the launch of Atlantis. From left, Charlie Rountree, Sally Meserole and Nan Pope (Rountree’s wife), all of Wilmington, N.C., set up their spot Thursday along the A. Max Brewer Memorial Parkway.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Thousands have flocked to the Space Coast to watch the launch of Atlantis. From left, Charlie Rountree, Sally Meserole and Nan Pope (Rountree’s wife), all of Wilmington, N.C., set up their spot Thursday along the A. Max Brewer Memorial Parkway.

CAPE CANAVERAL

George Diller, the man who will give the final countdown of the final space shuttle launch, has chosen his words very carefully.

Three, two, one — that much is pretty clear.

Then, if the launch happens as scheduled today, just after the fiery blast, Diller will deliver his "liftoff line" — the brief sentence that NASA broadcasters use to sum up space shuttle missions.

Diller, a NASA public affairs officer who grew up in Sarasota and graduated from the University of South Florida, isn't giving a preview of his final phrase, his attempt to crystallize the 30-year space shuttle era. The words finally popped into his head while flossing his teeth Wednesday morning.

But he did say that for him, the biggest honor is simply "being in the firing room with the launch team for the very last shuttle launch in history … I don't see how it could get any better than that."

Diller has a rare front-row seat for today's launch, but hundreds of thousands of others are expected to swarm the Space Coast this morning to get as close as they can, hoping storm clouds will not stop the attempt to launch Atlantis at 11:26 a.m.

Authorities were predicting anywhere from 500,000 to a million people might come, but the poor weather could keep some away. NASA said there was only a 30 percent chance of weather good enough for launch.

If the launch is scrubbed, there will be a 40 percent chance of acceptable weather for a launch at 11:04 a.m. Saturday and a 60 percent chance of good weather at 10:38 a.m. Sunday, shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters said. If the shuttle doesn't launch by then, next week is out because of a conflicting rocket launch.

Rain sprinkled the Space Coast on Thursday and thunder occasionally roared. Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver got an unexpected laugh during a news conference when she talked about launching "tomorrow" — just after a loud thunderclap made it seem unlikely.

Lightning struck in the afternoon near the launch pad but a review determined there was no damage.

As the rain came down, it was calm in the Titusville area Thursday. The streets were not yet packed, but many hotels had turned off their vacancy signs because of all the people coming in later.

The weather and the possibility of a delay did not faze some space lovers who already had shown up.

In fact, Walton Dauchy spent the morning sitting on a lawn chair in the rain so nobody would snatch his prime spot at Veterans Memorial Park, off U.S. 1, with a splendid view for watching the launch. The New York resident said he planned to spend Thursday night perched in his chair to save his place. If he got tired, he planned to lean forward and rest his head on two stacked coolers, like someone resting his head on a desk. He brought peanut butter, Gatorade and submarine sandwiches for nourishment, and an umbrella and water-repellent jacket as protection against the rain.

This is Dauchy's fifth shuttle-watching trip, and he's already nostalgic.

"It's the end of an era," he said.

Nearby, dozens of families camped in tents. RV parks along U.S. 1 were booked up weeks ago.

Tahseen Mohammed spent Thursday morning searching for a hotel for his family because he, his wife and their three children, ages 11, 9 and 7, just returned from a four-day cruise and have a few days to spare before flying back to Chicago. They could have gone to Disney World, but decided at the last minute to watch the shuttle. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said.

While the onlookers checked into hotels and scoped out viewing sites, shuttle workers continued their preparations.

For Diller, 62, that meant going over his lines and getting ready to begin his commentary early this morning, in a broadcast that can be heard on NASA's cable channel or on the Internet (http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/).

Diller worked at Tampa Bay radio stations including WTAN and others beginning when he was a college student, and he particularly enjoyed covering NASA. Then in 1979, as the agency was gearing up for a new program called the space shuttle, he was hired onto the public relations staff at Kennedy Space Center.

But it wasn't all space shuttle for Diller. He helped write about and do broadcasts on unmanned NASA missions to planets in the solar system, a part of the job he particularly loves. His first space shuttle broadcast came in 1988. He is particularly pleased to have handled the launch commentaries for all the Hubble Space Telescope missions.

As today's launch broadcaster, Diller will be the color commentator as well as the play-by-play man, explaining the launch progress like a sportscaster describing a ball game.

In Diller's broadcast, whether Atlantis launches today, Saturday or later, the climax comes at T-minus-zero. That's when he says his liftoff line. (A past favorite, from 1990: "And liftoff of space shuttle Discovery, with the Hubble Space Telescope, our window on the universe.")

Diller is one of the lucky ones at the space center, because he is keeping his job, unlike thousands who have been laid off. He will continue providing press materials and public information about upcoming science missions such as a new Mars Rover and a probe headed to Jupiter.

He's a bit wistful about the space shuttle, which he believes has contributed much to science and space exploration.

"After it's launched, and I've said my last words, it's going to be something like 'I can't believe I've just done the last one of these I'm ever going to do.' The finality of it, I'm pretty sure, is going to set in."

Crowds grow, weather threatens as NASA preps for the final shuttle launch 07/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2011 11:22pm]
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