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Heading over to see the shuttle launch in person? You won't be alone

It's the opportunity of a lifetime — the chance to see the space shuttle Atlantis take off for the last time, capping the shuttle program's 30-year run.

But if you didn't plan ahead, getting to the Space Coast to witness history at 11:26 a.m. Friday won't be easy. Brevard County is expecting up to 1 million people on launch day. Hotels have been sold out for weeks, and police are preparing for bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles.

"Long story short, we're expecting a mess," said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Channing Taylor.

And while coveted tickets for front-row seats at the Kennedy Space Center are long gone, brave souls willing to endure hours of traffic before Friday's shuttle launch still have a few options.

Where to go

Spectators without a golden ticket to the Kennedy Space Center — where astronauts Jon McBride and Sam Durantz will speak — can camp along U.S. Route 1 in Titusville for a glimpse of Atlantis soaring into space. Space View Park — just 15 miles from the launch pads — also will host a live audio broadcast of launch preparations before take off.

"They'll camp out all over the place," said Rob Varley, the executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism. "The city's not running everyone off. If you want to come up here and join the party, this is where it's at."

Hotels in Cocoa Beach and Titusville were sold out weeks ago, but Varley says shuttle enthusiasts can still book rooms in Daytona Beach and Orlando, which should afford good views.

Beating the traffic

The good news is that you may not have to pay tolls on the way to the launch Friday morning. The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority is prepared to suspend tolling in eastbound lanes at the Beachline main toll plaza on State Road 528 to keep traffic moving before launch. After the shuttle takes off, officials will suspend westbound tolling if traffic becomes too congested.

The bad news is it won't be enough, police still expect heavy traffic throughout much of the day.

"There's only so much asphalt for so many cars," Taylor said. "We're trying to keep everyone safe and keep the roads open. If there is a minor fender bender, we'll try to get it off the road."

Varley suggested spectators arrive in town no later than 6 a.m. "Everything you would take to the beach, bring it with you — sunscreen, water, snacks, all that stuff," he said. "And just be patient and enjoy."

And don't expect to head out right after the launch. Leaving will be as jammed as the ride in.

Watching from home

If skies are clear, Tampa Bay residents who don't want to spend the day in the car can see the launch from home.

But the forecast doesn't look good. Bay News 9 meteorologist Diane Kacmarik said the 11:26 a.m. launch falls around the time clouds are predicted to start building in the bay area, so local spectators may not be able to see Atlantis' ascent from their homes.

"If we have the clouds, that kind of wrecks it," she said. "But if visibility is good, there's a lot of places you can see the launch — as long as you have a clear view northeast."

The high chance of rain Friday has NASA worried as well.

NASA's website warns there is only a 30 percent chance that weather will be good enough for the launch on Friday. If it's delayed due to the weather, the next launch windows are Saturday and Sunday.

Heading over to see the shuttle launch in person? You won't be alone 07/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2011 12:33am]

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