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TIMOTHY A. CLARY  /  AFP - Getty Images
A man walks his dog in Parrish Park where shuttle fans are starting to camp out in Titusville, Fla. The Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to blast off Friday, and is attracting hundreds of thousands of revelers.
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updated 4/28/2011 2:55:14 PM ET 2011-04-28T18:55:14

Florida Space Coast hotels are sold out, residents are renting bedrooms and restaurants are doubling food supplies as thousands of tourists arriving for Friday's launch of space shuttle Endeavour are boosting a region fearing its economic future.

The launch is the next-to-last for the program and President Barack Obama and his family will be in attendance.

"The shuttle program is winding down and this is something that is on everybody's bucket list," said Rob Varley, the area's top tourism official. "For many people, it's like 'Uh-oh. We only have two more chances to see one.' "

Story: It's a 'go' for Endeavour's final launch on Friday
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The mission is also attracting extra attention because its commander is Mark Kelly, whose wife is Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She was shot in the head in a January assassination attempt, but arrived at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday and is expected to watch the launch from a private location.

Crowd estimates vary widely — Brevard County expects 250,000 visitors will attend. NASA's launch director says more than 500,000. And Varley is guessing 700,000. That figure would rival John Glenn's space shuttle launch in 1998 and those from some of the Apollo moon launches in the 1960s and 1970s.

Space Coast reeling
Endeavour's launch may be one of the last economic jolts the region gets as the space shuttle program winds down this summer. Economic prospects for the area are precarious. The Space Coast is still reeling from Florida's housing slump, NASA contractors already have laid-off thousands of workers and the unemployment rate is over 11 percent. Empty storefronts dot some shopping malls and vacant condos are common along the beach.

Story: How schoolkids gave the Endeavour its name

Shuttle launches usually generate about $5 million in economic activity for the Space Coast. Given the huge crowds expected, the Endeavour launch could generate more than $15 million, Varley said.

By Thursday morning, spectators had started setting up tents and campers along the Indian River in Titusville, a spot that offers an unobstructed view of the launch pad.

Among them was Clint Kelly who had driven with his mother the previous night from Springdale, Ark. He pitched an orange tent in the bed of his pickup truck which was now parked between two campers on the Indian River. He paid $20 a night for the spot along the river which was roped off from other motorists with orange tape.

"It's kind of like a big barbecue," said Kelly, 31, a public school maintenance worker. "Everybody is real friendly because we're all here for the same thing."

Hotel reservations are almost impossible to get, so some homeowners and apartment building managers are renting out spare bedrooms and empty units.

Tony Simons placed an ad on Craigslist hoping to rent two empty units at the Seacoast Arms Apartments in Titusville, about a mile from one of the most popular places to view shuttle launches on the Indian River. "Come be a part of that history!!!" the ad said.

He got one rented for the launch but was still looking Wednesday for tourists willing to spend $300 a night on the two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with a three-night minimum, just like the hotels. The launch is providing some extra cash for Simons, the apartment complex's manager, especially as the recession forced him to lower rents from $750 to $500 a month.

"Heaven yes!" Simons said when asked if he was expecting a small economic pop from the launch. Other businesses are too.

Story: Spaceflight training can spin you beyond dizzy

'Great for business'
The storage space at Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant is jammed full with extra dry goods, paper plates and napkins. Owner Lauralee Thompson expects business to more than double on Friday from the usual 1,500 daily diners to more than 3,000 patrons looking for platefuls of rock shrimp, oysters and hush puppies. With an average check at $17.50, Friday's revenue could spike to more than $52,000 from the usual $26,000 at Titusville's largest restaurant, with 465 seats.

"Shuttle launches are absolutely great for business," Thompson said.

But she worries the immense crowds, traffic gridlock and waits at the restaurant may lead to disappointment when diners can't get in or have to wait hours for a table.

"There is just no way to get everybody who wants to get here for the launch into the coastal area," Thompson said.

After the previous shuttle launch in February, some visitors returning to Orlando were stuck in traffic for three to five hours for a trip that normally takes an hour. The crowds overflowed into the roadways, blocking traffic.

"Cars couldn't get through them since the crowds overwhelmed them," said Bob Lay, the county's emergency management director. "It was almost like being in New Orleans at Mardi Gras."

Although a toll plaza was opened on the main highway between the Space Coast and Orlando so drivers could pass through without paying, it wasn't well-publicized and drivers ended up stopping anyway. This time around, local police agencies are getting the word out about no tolls, said Lt. Todd Maddox, a spokesman for the Brevard County Sheriff's Office.

"Once they start to stop, it's a trickledown effect," Maddox said. "It backs all the way up and it becomes a parking lot."

Gridlock anticipated
Traffic is expected to be so congested that if the countdown is halted at the last minute because of poor weather or technical problems, NASA may delay the next attempt by two days instead of one to avoid launch team members getting stuck in traffic and unable to get enough rest for the 24-hour turnaround.

Local police agencies also plan to use the county's emergency operations center so they can coordinate traffic flow better. Cocoa Beach schools are planning to let students out early, if the launch stays on schedule, to avoid the traffic headaches. Obama and his entourage will not affect traffic since his plane will land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, next to the Kennedy Space Center.

Lay advises anybody who doesn't need to come into the northern half of the county to stay away.

For those who do come, "they need to bring patience and they need to know it's going to take time," Lay said. "If they've got that, then they'll have a wonderful day."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Giffords takes giant step

Photos: The life of space shuttle Endeavour

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  1. Special delivery

    Endeavour was the last space shuttle to join NASA's fleet: It was built to replace the shuttle Challenger, which was lost in an explosion shortly after launch in 1986. This view shows Endeavour perched atop a modified Boeing 747 on May 2, 1991, beginning the ferry flight from Palmdale, Calif. - where the shuttle was built - to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First liftoff

    Endeavour lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 7, 1992, beginning its first mission. The STS-49 mission's primary task was the repair of the Intelsat VI telecommunications satellite. Endeavour was the only shuttle to make its maiden flight from Pad 39B. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grab that satellite!

    Endeavour astronauts Richard Hieb, Thomas Akers and Pierre Thuot hold onto the 4.5-ton Intelsat VI satellite after making a six-handed "capture" on May 13, 1992. The satellite failed to rise above low Earth orbit when it was launched in 1990. During Endeavour's maiden mission, astronauts retrieved the satellite, attached it to a new upper-stage booster and relaunched it to its intended geosynchronous orbit. This mission marked the first time that three people from the same spacecraft walked in space at the same time. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Science in space

    Endeavour astronauts Jan Davis, left, and Mae Jemison prepare to deploy the lower body negative pressure apparatus on Sept. 15, 1992. Scientific research was the main focus of this Spacelab-J mission, also known as STS-47. The mission's crew included the first African-American woman to fly in space (Mae Jemison) and the only husband-and-wife team to go into space together (Jan Davis and Mark Lee). (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fixing Hubble

    Astronauts flew on Endeavour to take on the first Hubble servicing mission in December 1993. In this picture, spacewalkers Story Musgrave and Jeffrey Hoffman perform an orbital ballet. The coastline of western Australia is visible below. The complex and highly successful repair mission allowed Hubble, which was launched with a defective mirror, to see into the universe with unprecedented clarity. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Building the station

    Endeavour spacewalker Jim Newman holds onto the International Space Station's Unity connecting module as he removes covers and works on connecting cables on Dec. 7, 1998. The STS-88 flight marked the shuttle fleet's first space station assembly mission. (AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Erroneous endeavor

    The shuttle Endeavour sits on its launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 11, 2007. "Endeavor" is spelled incorrectly on the banner. The shuttle was named after the HMS Endeavour, the British sailing ship that carried Captain James Cook on his first voyage of discovery from 1768 to 1771. That's why Endeavour reflects the British spelling of the word. (Eliot J. Schechter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Spacewalkers at work

    During the first spacewalk of the STS-118 mission, on Aug. 11, 2007, astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Canada's Dave Williams (out of frame) attach a new segment of the International Space Station's truss and retract a collapsible radiator. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Class portrait

    The crew members of Endeavour's STS-118 crew pose for their official portrait on Aug. 8, 2007. From left are Rick Mastracchio, Barbara Morgan, pilot Charles Hobaugh, mission commander Scott Kelly, Tracy Caldwell, Canadian astronaut Dave Williams and Alvin Drew. During this flight, Morgan became the first educator astronaut to go into orbit. In 1986, she was the backup for Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who died in the Challenger explosion. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great view

    Endeavour spacewalker Rick Mastracchio relocates communications equipment on the International Space Station during an outing on Aug. 15, 2007. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A gouge in the tiles

    Tiles on the underside of the space shuttle Endeavour show evidence of damage in a photo taken on Aug. 12, 2007, using the shuttle's robotic arm and a camera-tipped extension boom. The close-up imagery helped mission managers determine that the gouge would pose no threat during Endeavour's atmospheric re-entry. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Eye of the hurricane

    Crew members aboard the shuttle Endeavour captured this picture of Hurricane Dean's eye in the Caribbean on Aug. 18, 2007. The STS-118 mission ended on Aug. 21, one day earlier than planned, to avoid potential complications due to the storm. Forecasters worried that Hurricane Dean could have swept over Houston around the time of landing - but in the end, the storm took a different course. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. In control

    NASA Administrator Michael Griffin watches the liftoff of the space shuttle Endeavour from the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 14, 2008. The STS-126 mission delivered two spare bedrooms as well as a second kitchen and bathroom to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Repairs at the pad

    Workers perform repairs on the shuttle Endeavour's external fuel tank at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad on June 14, 2009. The launch team detected a leak of hydrogen fuel from the tank, forcing a delay in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. The mission's main task was the delivery of the final segment of Japan's Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station. (Tim Jacobs / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lightning strikes

    A giant bolt of lightning hits Endeavour's Florida launch pad on July 10, 2009. Technical problems and severe weather forced five delays in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. (Gene Blevins / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Liftoff at last!

    The space shuttle Endeavour rises from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on July 15, 2009, on the STS-127 mission's sixth launch attempt. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Parting glance

    The space shuttle Endeavour is photographed from the International Space Station soon after its departure on July 28, 2009. A Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station is visible in the foreground. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Twilight of the shuttle

    The shuttle Endeavour is silhouetted against different layers of the sunlit atmosphere during its approach to the International Space Station on Feb. 9, 2010. The primary payloads for Endeavour's STS-130 mission were the Tranquility module and the Cupola observation deck and control station. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Check out this view!

    Astronaut George Zamka, Endeavour's commander for the STS-130 mission, peeks out a window of the International Space Station's newly installed Cupola observation deck on Feb. 19, 2010. The Cupola provides an unparalleled view of Earth below. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Tanks for the memories

    The external fuel tank for Endeavour's final mission, STS-134, is transported to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 14, 2010. STS-134's main payload is the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an international physics experiment. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The view from above

    The space shuttle Endeavour is lowered into place for attachment to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 1, 2011. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Greeting the day

    The sun rises as photographers gather on a hill to take pictures shortly after the shuttle Endeavour's arrival at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on March 11, 2011. (Roberto Gonzalez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Into the clouds

    Photographers track the space shuttle Endeavour's ascent as it pierces the clouds and disappears after launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. (Craig Rubadoux / Daytona Beach News-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Godspeed, Endeavour!

    Spectators react as the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. Hundreds of thousands of people watched the start of the next-to-last space shuttle flight. (Scott Audette / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Above the clouds

    Stefanie Gordon captured this remarkable picture of the space shuttle Endeavour rising above Florida's cloud cover on May 16 while she was on a commercial flight from New York to Palm Beach, Fla. (Stefanie Gordon / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The last spacewalk

    NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff holds a handrail during the fourth and last spacewalk conducted by the shuttle Endeavour's crew at the International Space Station on May 27. Chamitoff and astronaut Michael Fincke (visible in the reflections from Chamitoff's helmet visor) transferred an inspection boom system, completing U.S. assembly of the station. The May 27 outing marked the last scheduled spacewalk to be conducted by a space shuttle crew. (Nasa T.V. via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Night passage

    Backdropped by a nighttime view of Earth and the starry sky, the space shuttle Endeavour is seen docked to the International Space Station on May 28. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Landing in the dark

    The space shuttle Endeavour lands for the last time at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 1, 2011. The touchdown capped Endeavour's 16-day mission to deliver a $2 billion science experiment to the International Space Station on NASA's next-to-last shuttle flight. (Joe Skipper / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Blastoff into history

    A NASA poster pays tribute to Endeavour and its space missions over the past two decades. The shuttle is shown rising to orbit, with patches for each of its missions laid out in a spiral. The HMS Endeavour, which inspired the spaceship's name, is shown at lower right. At upper left, pictures of Endeavour are framed in the windows of the Cupola. The background image depicts the nebula NGC 602 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, which was first serviced by Endeavour in 1993. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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