Atlantis launch successful, historic final shuttle mission underway
Atlantis launch: Despite a bleak forecast of thunderstorms and clouds, the shuttle beat the weather in a stunning midday launch, sailing into the sky on one final voyage.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.
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Despite a bleak forecast of thunderstorms and clouds, the shuttle beat the weather in a stunning midday launch, sailing into the sky on one final voyage. The coutndown toward liftoff took a dramatic pause at T minus 31 seconds while ground crews verified that a vent arm at the top of the shuttle was fully retracted. NASA was quickly able to push on toward liftoff.
Atlantis blasted off just after 11:26 a.m. EDT (1526 GMT) from Launch Pad 39A here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, thrilling huge throngs of spectators who had descended on Florida's Space Coast to see the swan song of an American icon. NASA estimated that between 750,000 and 1 million people turned out to watch history unfold before their eyes.
"Good luck to you and your crew on the final flight of this true American icon. Good luck, god speed, and have a little fun up there," shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach told the astronauts just before launch.
"Thanks to you and your team, Mike," Atlantis' commander Chris Ferguson replied. "We're completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. The crew of Atlantis is ready to launch."
After 135 launches over 30 years, the space shuttle will never streak into the sky again. [Video: Want to Feel a Shuttle Launch?]
Atlantis and its four-astronaut crew are headed for a rendezvous with the International Space Station. The main goal of the shuttle's 12-day flight — Atlantis' 33rd mission after nearly 26 years of flying — is to deliver a year's worth of supplies and spare parts to the orbiting lab.
But the world's attention is fixed more on what Atlantis' last mission means than on what it will accomplish in orbit.
"For an entire generation who grew up with the space shuttle, this is a moment that won't be appreciated for some time to come," said space history expert Robert Pearlman, editor of collectSPACE.com and a SPACE.com contributor. "People have taken it for granted; I don't think its absence is going to be immediately felt."
A skeleton crew
Commander Chris Ferguson is leading a skeleton crew of four on Atlantis' STS-135 flight. He's joined by pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus. Other shuttle missions over the years have typically carried six or seven spaceflyers, but NASA wanted to use every bit of available space to pack extra cargo on this last drop-off mission to the station.