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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - For the residents of Florida's Space Coast, the approaching end of the shuttle program brings a mix of pride in what they helped build and frustration that America has no new spacecraft ready to launch the next generation of explorers.
NASA is set to launch the shuttle Endeavour on its final voyage on Friday, and sister ship Atlantis will close out the 30-year-old shuttle program when it returns from a mission set for launch in June.
"I'll cry when it launches. I'll cry when it comes back." said Laverne Woodard, who began working for NASA as a shuttle payload logistician in 1980, a year before the first shuttle flight. "When you watch them go up, you feel you've touched a piece of history."
Woodard retired five years ago but came right back to the Kennedy Space Center as a volunteer and has attended all 133 shuttle launches to date.
She is awed by the scope of the shuttle's scientific research and can recite a list of everyday innovations that evolved from the space program -- cordless power drills, certain medical lasers, improved prosthetic limbs, and GPS devices to guide motorists.
"We are going to miss the shuttle program and the research that it's generated," said Bob Elder, facilities manager at the Cocoa Beach Pier, which juts out into the turquoise Atlantic Ocean south of the spaceport. Thousands of spectators jam the pier and adjacent sandy beach to watch the shuttles go up.
Elder said he would miss "the excitement, the American pride, for the youth and the aviation industry."
"There will be a lot of sad people, a lot of very worried people," when the shuttle program ends, he said.
Space exploration is woven into the fabric of life in Titusville, Merritt Island, Cocoa, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne and other communities on Florida's central Atlantic coast. Children attend Astronaut High School and Satellite High. The telephone area code -- 3-2-1 -- reflects the countdown to launch.
Jonathan Werba, a 50-year-old medical worker and surfer, remembers when NASA representatives came to his school to discuss the then-future shuttle program. It would launch reusable vehicles, giant space trucks made up of more than a million parts, flying so often the missions would become routine.
Even now, Werba marvels at the brilliant flame that turned darkness to daylight during the night launches and the sonic booms that herald a shuttle's return.
"It never fails to elicit a surprise when it comes back ... that BAH-BOOM!" Werba said.
He was proudest when astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, returned to space aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1998.
"People pulled over to the side of the road to watch and shout, 'God Speed John Glenn,'" Werba said.
But the shuttle program is ending without firm plans for a replacement spacecraft and many Space Coast residents fear that will cause the United States to lose its leadership role in space.
"We're going to lose some of the brightest minds in the country as far as scientists and engineers," said Werba, who joked that Chinese recruiters will be standing outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center, handing out business cards.
Shuttle worker layoffs already have begun and economists fear a ripple effect through the businesses those workers supported and the hotels and restaurants that catered to NASA customers and spectators.
Daily traffic is noticeably lighter on State Road 3 leading to the Kennedy Space Center, said Waylon Cattee, who lives 2 miles (3.2 km) away on Merritt Island.
"Titusville is going to be a ghost town," he said.
But Woodard, the retired NASA worker, is not ready to give up on her dream. "My children and grandchildren might get to Mars. You never know," she said. (Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman)