Thousands of people traveled to Kennedy Space Center for the recent launch of the shuttle Endeavour, and many more watched on television. VOA's Brian Wagner visited the launch complex to talk with space enthusiasts and some aspiring astronauts about their hopes for the future of the space program.

As NASA engineers made their final preparations for launch, thousands of viewers gathered 10 kilometers away to see the shuttle Endeavour take flight. Space enthusiasts say the visitor center at Kennedy Space Center is one of the best places to watch a shuttle launch.

Visitors come from across the United States to see the launches, and foreign tourists take time on their American vacations to visit the launch complex. Richard Cook said he has lived near the space center for years and has always been impressed by the feats of engineering. "I think the engineering, the power, how they get up there is the biggest thing."

Many at the center got their first up-close look at a shuttle launch. But nearby resident Aileen Vidal recalled a memorable earlier visit. "One of the first dates my husband and I took was to see a shuttle launch. We came to this launch with our son, who hopes to be an astronaut some day."

The complex offers visitors a chance to learn about space exploration and shuttle history, and even take a ride on a $10 million simulator that recreates the sensation of a shuttle launch. Former astronauts also take questions about their experiences in space. "What do you have to do to get into the rocket?" asked one visitor.

After 30 years of shuttle missions, however, NASA officials are preparing to retire the aging fleet of space shuttles. Engineers already are working on the next generation vehicle that will enable astronauts to travel to the moon and possibly to Mars in coming years. High school student Robert Sumner said the future is promising. "I think it is pretty exciting because it means our country is developing further and further and just makes it better for us."

NASA has recently struggled with unflattering media attention, including reports of pilots flying drunk, sabotaged equipment and a former astronaut facing criminal charges. Supporters say the reports do not affect their view of the space program. Jen Gebo says she hopes they will not threaten funding levels.

"I do not think it is going to change a lot of minds. It is just ammunition for people with arguments against the [space] program anyway."

Officials say attendance at the visitor center has been growing steadily, and more than 13,000 people attended the Endeavour launch. After the clock ticked down and the Endeavour blasted off into space, Jeff Buck said the experience was well worth it. "Man, you could feel it, you could see it. It was just breathtaking."

The Endeavour crew is expected to complete its 14-day mission and return to Earth on August 22. The next shuttle flight is set for October, when followers of America's space program will have another chance to see a launch first-hand.