Astronauts arrive for countdown

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The four astronauts who will close out NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program arrived Monday for their history-making launch week, saluting the nation’s birthday and all those who contributed to Atlantis’ final flight.

The launch countdown begins today. Liftoff is set for Friday at 11:26 a.m. before an estimated crowd of up to 1 million people.

Commander Christopher Ferguson and his crew received small American flags as launch director Mike Leinbach greeted them out on the runway. The four needed just two training jets for the flight from their training base in Houston.

“This is a day that’s decidedly American, a day where we kind of reflect on our independence and all the wonderful things that we really have as a part of being United States of America,” said Ferguson, a retired Navy captain.

“It’s wonderful that you’ve all came out to join us,” he told the approximately 65 photographers and other journalists who swarmed the runway. He urged them to go and enjoy some barbecue, fireworks and apple pie.

Altogether, about 2,500 members of the news media have requested credentials to cover the launch. As of Monday, the estimated total crowd count also had risen: NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said between 750,000 and 1 million people now are expected to jam the area to witness the end to shuttle history.

That’s considerably more than the crowds that showed up for Discovery’s last liftoff in February and Endeavour’s in May. The Endeavour send-off even attracted President Barack Obama and his entire family, but a launch delay in late April had him mingling instead with the shuttle crew and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the wounded wife of commander Mark Kelly.

A busy 12-day flight lies ahead, Ferguson said, making note of the abridged crew. Atlantis will make a supply run to the International Space Station, before joining Discovery and Endeavour in retirement.

“When it’s all over ... we’ll be very proud to put the right-hand bookend on the space shuttle program,” he said.

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