NASA / Ben Cooper
Crowds fill Kennedy Space Center's Banana River viewing site to see and record space shuttle Endeavour as it roars into space on the STS-127 mission on July 15, 2009.
updated 7/5/2011 12:55:10 PM ET 2011-07-05T16:55:10

Whether you've never seen a space shuttle launch before, or you've seen a hundred, now's the time to do it. Your last to chance to see NASA's iconic space plane blast off into space is coming up in just a few days.

On Friday at 11:26 a.m. EDT, the space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off on the 135th and final space shuttle flight ever (although weather is threatening to temporarily scrub the flight). After that, NASA's three space shuttles will be retired to museums while NASA focuses on getting humans to Mars.

If you're thinking about viewing the launch in person from somewhere near NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., you're not alone. NASA officials have said they expect up to 750,000 spectators to watch the liftoff from the Space Coast area, though experts say the number will likely top 1 million.

"On launch day there's going to be bigger crowds than they’ve seen probably in a long time," said Ben Cooper, a space photographer for NASA and other media outlets.

NASA's STS-135 mission aboard Atlantis is a 12-day flight that will deliver supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station. After this mission, the space agency will retire its three-shuttle fleet for good to make way for a new program aimed at deep space exploration.

In addition to this being the last shuttle launch, the timing of the liftoff  (during the day in the summer when school is out) means the conditions are right to attract the largest possible crowds. That means hopeful launch viewers need to come prepared. Here's what you need to know:

Location, location, location
Picking a spot is the largest decision you've got to make. NASA sells a limited number of tickets to view the launch from either the NASA Causeway, about 6 miles from the Atlantis' Launch Pad 39A, or from Kennedy Space Center's Visitor's Center. However, both sites have been sold out for weeks.

At the time of writing, tickets for the causeway were selling for upward of $500, some for as much as $1,000, on eBay.

If you don't want to shell out that kind of money, there's good news. Great viewing spots abound on Florida's Space Coast, and they're free.

The city of Titusville, just 12 miles across the Indian River from Kennedy Space Center, is a premiere spot. It affords great views from numerous parks along the water, including Space View Park and Parrish Park (on the causeway between Titusville and the spaceport).

The town of Port Canaveral, a popular harbor for cruise ships, is also a good choice, affording largely unobstructed views.

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"Titusville will always be the No. 1 choice, and the second best is Port Canaveral because it's only about a mile farther and you can see the pad clearly from there," Cooper said. "Either way you're still talking about major parking issues."

Another good option for shuttle viewing is a spot along the coast in the nearby city of Cocoa Beach.

"You won't see the launch pad itself, but you'll see everything else," Cooper said. "I have no doubt the beach will be packed too," but its large size will mitigate some of the effects of the crowds, he said.

To help narrow down your choices, Cooper's web site of launch viewing advice includes photos of shuttle launches from all the various locations, giving you a good preview of what you'll see. His site is here:

Timing is everything
Your next major decision is when to show up. Clearly, the earlier the better.

"Definitely before the sun comes up," Cooper said. "If you want a front row spot, you're going to want to get there nine to 12 hours out at least."

He predicted the bulk of the hordes would show up about five to seven hours before liftoff time, so just a few hours earlier should put you ahead of the crowd.

"There's no question some people will be staking out spots the night before," Cooper said.

With hours to kill before things get exciting, it's a good idea to bring snacks, games and books to keep yourself from going stir-crazy.

Getting the shot
It's worth taking some time to think about what you want to do when the moment finally comes.

While most people, understandably, want to snag a great photo for the family album, it's also important to savor the first-hand experience. After all, countless professional photographers on the scene will likely take better shots than most of us, many of which will be available from NASA and newspapers for your collection.

"Most important is to view the launch with your own eyes and not take too many pictures," Cooper recommended.

He advocated deciding ahead of time at what stages of the liftoff you'll snap pictures, and at what points you'll put the camera down and just take in the scene.

When you do snap the camera, be sure to capture some scenes of the crowd, as well as the rocket, and frame some shots with a tree or a pier in the foreground, Cooper suggested.

One final tip: If you can't make it to Cape Canaveral to watch Atlantis' final launch, NASA has a digital alternative. The space agency, as well as countless other media outlets, will broadcast the launch countdown and liftoff live on its NASA TV channel, which you can access by clicking here.

You can follow senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Visit for complete coverage of Atlantis' final mission STS-135or follow us @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Photos: The final countdown: Shuttle Atlantis

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  1. Atlantis rising

    The space shuttle Atlantis makes its maiden voyage on Oct. 3, 1985, for the Defense Department's STS-51-J mission. At 176,413 pounds, Atlantis is nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia, which was the heaviest shuttle. Atlantis is the lightest shuttle of the remaining fleet, weighing 3 pounds less than the shuttle Endeavour (with the three main engines). Atlantis is also the last space shuttle to be retired.

    Other statistics:
    Length: 122.17 feet
    Height: 56.58 feet
    Wingspan: 78.06 feet (Phil Sandlin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First of its kind

    NASA's Magellan spacecraft is deployed from Atlantis' cargo bay in 1989 during the STS-30 mission. The Venus orbiter was the first interplanetary probe launched from a space shuttle. Later that year, Atlantis launched the Galileo probe to Jupiter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mission to Mir

    NASA and the Russian space agency kicked off a new era in international space cooperation during the STS-71 mission in June 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia's Mir space station for the first time. This historic photo of the linked spacecraft was taken from a Russian Soyuz capsule during a fly-around. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Here's looking at you

    The space shuttle Atlantis begins the slow journey to Launch Pad 39A from the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in preparation for the launch of STS-79 in September 1996. This dramatic view, looking directly down onto the shuttle stack, was taken from the roof of the 525-foot-tall VAB. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Science in orbit

    Astronaut Shannon Lucid floats through the tunnel that connects Spacelab to Atlantis' cabin on Sept. 24, 1996. The Spacelab module rode in the shuttle's cargo bay and provided more space for scientific experiments. During this STS-79 mission, Atlantis linked up with Russia's Mir space station and brought Lucid back to Earth. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Lighting up the night

    Atlantis streaks into the early morning sky from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 15, 1997, as seen in this long-exposure photo taken from Veterans Memorial Park in Titusville, Fla. Atlantis' 10-day STS-84 mission featured a docking with Russia's Mir space station and a crew transfer. Atlantis docked with Mir seven times before the space station was deorbited in 2001. (Brian Cleary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Good as new

    The space shuttle Atlantis went back to its assembly plant in Palmdale, Calif., for 10 months of refurbishment and upgrades in 1997-1998. This aerial photo shows Atlantis taking a piggyback ride back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a modified Boeing 747 jet on Sept. 1, 1998. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Checking it out

    Atlantis' upgraded cockpit gets a once-over in 1999 from engineers and executives, including Roy Bridges, Kennedy Space Center's director (seated at bottom left), as well as Laural Patrick, Joann Morgan and George Selina. The upgrades made Atlantis the most modern orbiter in the shuttle fleet, with a control system as advanced as those found on commercial jet airliners and military aircraft. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tile tune-up

    Izeal Battle, a worker from United Space Alliance, repairs heat-shield tiles on the belly of the space shuttle Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 30, 2004. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Back in business

    Atlantis' astronauts leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center and board the "Astrovan" for the ride out to Launch Pad 39B on Sept. 8, 2006, while gun-toting guards keep watch. A faulty fuel gauge grounded the shuttle for an extra day, but on Sept. 9 the shuttle lifted off on its STS-115 mission to the International Space Station. It marked Atlantis' first launch since 2002. (Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Liftoff!

    The space shuttle Atlantis rises on a pillar of cloud from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 9, 2006. Atlantis delivered structural components to the International Space Station during its STS-115 mission, resuming an orbital construction project that was stopped following the 2003 Columbia tragedy. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Mission accomplished

    The clouds of Earth provide a backdrop for Atlantis shortly after its departure from the International Space Station on Sept. 17, 2006. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Night landing

    Atlantis lands amid darkness at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 21, 2006, bringing the STS-115 space station construction mission to a successful close. (Chris O'Meara / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kicking the tires

    Atlantis crew members Chris Ferguson and Dan Burbank look over their spaceship after landing at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 21, 2006. Ferguson was slated to be Atlantis' commander for NASA's final space shuttle mission. (Pierre Ducharme / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Blaze of glory

    The space shuttle Atlantis' solid rocket boosters light up for launch on June 8, 2007, beginning a flight to the International Space Station. This STS-117 mission marked the 250th orbital human spaceflight. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Watching the ascent

    NASA mission managers monitor Atlantis' liftoff from Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16, 2009. During the STS-129 mission, Atlantis delivered a payload platform and vital supplies to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Shuttle skywriting

    Nearly an hour after launch, contrails from the shuttle Atlantis' liftoff float above the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 8, 2007. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Last visit to Hubble

    Spacewalkers Andrew Feustel and John Grunsfeld work on the Hubble Space Telescope on May 16, 2009, during Atlantis' STS-125 mission. This marked the final Hubble servicing mission. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Making a list

    Atlantis astronaut Mike Massimino writes notes on a checklist during the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission on May 18, 2009. During this mission, Massimino became the first astronaut to send a Twitter update from orbit: "Launch was awesome!!" (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. First Family meets Atlantis

    NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi leads President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia beneath the shuttle Atlantis during a tour of the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on April 29, 2011. At the time, Atlantis was being prepared for its final flight. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Final flight

    Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. The shuttle fleet's 135th and final mission, known as STS-135, brought supplies to the international space station. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Witnessing history

    Spectators watch the liftoff of Atlantis on its final mission at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Last rendezvous

    The space shuttle Atlantis docks with the International Space Station for the last time on July 10, 2011. The shuttle delivered more than four tons of food, clothes and other supplies to keep the space station going in the post-shuttle era. NASA figures that this shipment will help keep the space station provisioned at least through the end of 2012. (NASA TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Flight into history

    This poster pays tribute to the shuttle Atlantis' quarter-century of spaceflight: Graphic elements include the International Space Station and Russia's Mir space station, the Hubble Space Telescope (which Atlantis visited during the last servicing mission) and Venus and Jupiter (which were the destinations for probes launched from Atlantis). Threaded through the design are the mission patches for each of Atlantis' flights. A copy of this tribute poster hangs in Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Amy Lombardo / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. An unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, as photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station on July 21, 2011. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. The Atlantis returned to Earth marking the end of the space shuttle era when its wheels touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Centre. 'After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. It's come to a final stop,' Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson replied. (Nasa / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Johnson Space Center employees Shelley Stortz, left, and Jeremy Rea, right, hold hands as they watch space shuttle Atlantis land on July 21, 2011, in Houston. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 21, 2011. The Atlantis glided home through a moonlit sky for its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet. (Pierre Ducharme / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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