Anticipation builds before final Nasa shuttle launch

A Nasa shuttle sits on the launch pad in this file photo.

(AP, ABC7) It is about 36 hours until the final scheduled liftoff in the Nasa shuttle program. While the astronauts prepare for the voyage, people in the region are excited about shuttle Atlantis' historic final mission.

Weather permitting, the shuttle Atlantis will lift off Friday morning, bound for the international space station.

One aircraft that has found its final home fills an entire wing at the Smithsonian National Air and Space center near Dulles airport: the space shuttle Enterprise.

For museum-goers a glance at Nasa's engineering ingenuity comes at the conclusion of a remarkable run.

“I understand that Nasa is changing and evolving and meeting new adventures so part of me is excited to see the evolution and part of me is sad because there's so much history wrapped up into this program,” one visitor said.

The 30-year-program has been marked by triumph and tragedy. Kira Kristan graduated from the same high school in Hawaii as Challenger astronaut Ellison Onizuka.

“It’s definitely a tinge of bittersweet for the people of Hawaii and especially Kona," she said.

Nasa's new missions, human flights to an asteroid and eventually mars, are years in the making. But in this hanger, the dream of exploration remains a reality.

The retiring shuttles will land all over the county. Atlantis stays in Florida. Endeavour heads to Los Angeles. Enterprise moves to New York.

And in April 2012, Discovery will replace Enterprise at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy center in Northern Virginia.

Bad weather may interfere with shuttle launch

Bad weather is expected, and forecasters said there's a 70 percent chance that rain or thunderstorms will prevent Atlantis from flying. No hail or other severe conditions are anticipated, just "a lot of nuisance weather," said the shuttle weather officer, Kathy Winters. The weather improves slightly over the weekend.

Between 750,000 and 1 million people are expected to jam the area for the launch, rivaling the crowds that gathered for the Apollo moon shots.

"I hope it's not like the last launch where we only saw it for 22 seconds," Launch director Mike Leinbach said, referring to Endeavour's May liftoff when the shuttle quickly disappeared into the clouds.

Leinbach doesn't just want a hole in the clouds for Atlantis to sneak through, he wants no clouds for this historic send-off - the last of the 30-year shuttle program.

If Atlantis isn't flying by Sunday, NASA said it will have to wait until at least July 16 because of a scheduling conflict with an unmanned rocket due to lift off next week.

"We know there's a lot more interest in the final launch, but when we're on console Friday morning, it's going to be like any other launch," Leinbach said.