Cape Canaveral will next week launch its first astronauts for nine years but Nasa and partner SpaceX are urging the spectators who normally cram beaches and roads to stay way because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nasa and SpaceX stressed safety in pleading with people to stay away but officials in Brevard County, Florida, home to the Kennedy Space Centre, are rolling out the welcome mat in an effort to jump-start a tourism industry hit hard this spring by coronavirus-related lockdowns.

If people are comfortable coming and watching the launch, “by all means, come. If they aren’t, I respect that too”, said Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey.

“I’m not going to tell Americans they can’t watch a great piece of history.

“I’m just not going to do it,” he said.

The sheriff said he is asking visitors to practice social distancing as they watch the launch of astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a test flight of SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule.

Lift-off is set for 4.33pm local time on Wednesday.

Around 85 reserve deputies will be on hand to monitor crowds and ask people to comply with social distancing if they are in groups.

A local chain of beach shops is distributing 20,000 masks to spectators in coordination with the sheriff’s office, Mr Ivey said.

Home Launch Spectators
Crowds gather in the surf and on the beach in Cocoa Beach, Florida, in 2011 to watch the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis (Dave Martin/AP)

The sheriff, who grew up in Florida watching launches, wants a new generation to be able to experience the energy, excitement and feelings of patriotism that comes from watching a US launch with astronauts.

“Nasa is a true part of our history in Brevard County,” Mr Ivey said.

Earlier this month, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine asked potential spectators to watch the launch online or on TV from home.

The space agency is also offering a “virtual launch experience”.

Nasa is doing its best to facilitate social distancing inside the Kennedy Space Centre by limiting access, although it may be hosting two VIPS.

Vice President Mike Pence says he plans to be there, and President Donald Trump said he is thinking of attending.

Home Launch Astronauts Arrive
Nasa astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley (John Raoux/AP)

The visitor centre at Kennedy, usually a prime spot for viewing launches, is closed to the public.

Nasa astronauts have not launched from the US since the space shuttle programme ended in 2011.

Wednesday’s launch will be the first attempt by a private company to fly astronauts to orbit for the space agency.