NASA footing the bill for many to witness final space shuttle launch

For one career NASA engineer joining the thousands of Houstonians going to Florida this week for the final space shuttle launch, this trip wasn't necessarily a part of the plan.
Really, he'd have no problem staying at Mission Control in Houston, watching data flow into computer monitors about the shuttle's progress and trajectory as it rockets out of the atmosphere.
That is what Mack Henderson, 72, who began his career working on development of the Saturn V rocket, has done for decades. And it's the reason that he's only attended two spacecraft launches in his 51-year career, one of them for Apollo 12.
This time, however, NASA is paying for him and more than 140 other employees to watch the final space shuttle lift off in person.

"My hope is that after this launch, they'll say, 'Oh, we were just kidding. We're going to fly more space shuttle flights,' " said Henderson, who added that he's happy to be able to witness the milestone but will be sad that the program is ending.

Those may be the sentiments of many of the Houston space-industry workers, past and present, traveling in droves to Florida this week to watch the beginning of the end of NASA's space shuttle era, but they are going anyway.

"In some ways, it's just sad to see it end," said Lisa Reed, 50, who worked for nearly 15 years at NASA before leaving to join a private consulting firm. Reed, who helped train astronauts on docking and life support systems, will watch the launch in Florida with her relatives.
"I have so many good memories leading up to it, and just seeing it end and knowing that a lot of my friends will now be out of a job and that I love the space shuttle program and that it is ending" will be difficult, she said.

Though bittersweet, buzz about the final launch, scheduled for Friday, swept over Johnson Space Center in recent weeks as workers tried to secure coveted spaces on the NASA causeway at Cape Canaveral and planned flights, road trips and hotel stays to be a part of the historic day.

Bus space sells out

NASA, after noticing ballooning interest among its workers in seeing the final shuttle launches, began organizing charter buses, accommodations and a designated viewing area to help workers travel and watch the start of the final missions, said Lisa Rasco, who coordinated the travel program for NASA.

Spaces on the buses for this week's launch sold out several weeks ago, Rasco said. The buses set out on the 18-hour journey Wednesday. A total of 130 people had reserved bus or hotel bookings through the NASA service, she said. Thousands of other workers are flying on their own, driving and planning their own stays before meeting at a Kennedy Space Center recreation facility that can accommodate 10,000 viewers. That area is expected to be filled with NASA workers and their families, she said.

The final shuttle launch was a milestone that David Rose, 44, couldn't miss. A Florida native who worked at Johnson Space Center for 18 years before leaving and joining an engineering consulting firm, Rose helped train astronauts and has seen more than a dozen shuttle launches.
His life has been connected and inspired by the space program and industry, with him traveling to California in 2005 to see the first private spacecraft launch out of the atmosphere. He plans to watch Atlantis launch Friday with his parents-in-law and brother from the NASA causeway.

Excited, but also sad

Rose's life inspiration is not unique among the current and former NASA workers who scrambled to make plans to watch the final launch. 

NASA's human space flight program, with the shuttle's 30-year history, stirred the imaginations of many of the professionals who have dedicated their lives to the field. With the shuttle program being the agency's sole human space endeavor of the past three decades, pride in its achievements will draw many Houstonians to Florida this week, said Heather Hinkel, principal engineer of new docking and sensor technology tested in orbit on the final launch of Endeavour in May.

"We are definitely excited for what is next," said Hinkel, 42, who will watch the launch from Banana Creek at Kennedy Space Center. "I know NASA will always have great work, but the human space flight aspect is sort of my favorite thing, so it will just be sad to see that all come to an end."

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