CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The space shuttle Atlantis soared from Earth one last time Friday morning, carrying four astronauts on a final, unforgettable ride.
Hundreds of thousands lined Florida’s Space Coast to witness the 135th and final shuttle mission, which lifted off just after 11:29 a.m. An issue with equipment on the launch pad prompted a brief countdown pause at 31 seconds before liftoff, delaying the launch for about two minutes and 15 seconds.
“It got a little dicey there a couple times, but we found our way through it,” said Bob Cabana, a former shuttle astronaut who now serves as director of the Kennedy Space Center. “It truly was an awesome, spectacular launch.”
NASA’s weather watchers had been pessimistic about Atlantis’ chances of launching on time. The first official forecast of launch week, handed down Tuesday by the 45th Weather Squadron at nearby Patrick Air Force Base, predicted only a 40 percent chance of favorable launch conditions. That figure dropped to 30 percent the following day and had remained at that level through the weather check at 2 a.m. Friday.
But with the shuttle’s mechanical systems checking out fine, NASA decided to prepare for launch and hope a window would open at the right time. It did, as clouds that had been so thick at dawn that they obscured the sunrise finally parted, allowing the veteran shuttle crew safe passage skyward.
Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim donned their flight suits shortly after 7 a.m. and boarded Atlantis an hour later. The close-out crew sealed Atlantis’ hatch at 9:21 a.m. and the astronauts were left to recline on their backs for more than two hours as they and their support staff performed final checks of every system in the shuttle.
Finally, with the familiar roar of engines accompanied by billowing smoke, Atlantis lifted free of Launch Pad 39A. Reaching speeds of 17,500 mph, it headed for orbit and a rendezvous with the International Space Station.
Cheers rang out at Kennedy Space Center as a crowd that featured former astronauts, family members of the current shuttle crew and thousands of employees who have done the detail work and heavy lifting that keep the shuttles flying celebrated a bittersweet moment. Space center workers later gathered in the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building, where all the shuttle’s components are put in place, to toast the launch.
“What a truly awesome day today,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, director of NASA’s manned space operations. “We got to witness something really, really special and something really amazing. You may think I’m talking about the hardware, but I’m really talking about the teams and the people that supported the launch that just occurred.”
The mission designated STS-135 will be the second trip to space for Hurley and the third for Ferguson, Magnus and Walheim. Magnus has logged the most space time on the crew, including a 4½-month stay on the International Space Station from November 2008 through March 2009.
More than 30 years of shuttle missions have seen 355 astronauts representing 16 different countries take flight.
Atlantis is making its 33rd flight, second only to Discovery’s 39 among the five shuttles. The group had logged more than 537 million miles heading into the final flight, which is scheduled to last 12 days.
Atlantis will dock at the International Space Station on Sunday, with its primary mission the delivery of the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module — a collection of supplies and spare parts that will help sustain ISS operations once the shuttle program ends.
The astronauts also will perform experiments and bring back some cargo, most notably an ammonia pump that recently failed on the space station. Astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum, who flew to the ISS in April and June, respectively, aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, will perform a spacewalk during Atlantis’ visit.
Atlantis is scheduled to return home to Kennedy Space Center and land on the morning of July 20 — the 42nd anniversary of the day Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon — but officials are considering whether to extend the mission an extra day.
“There’s still a lot of work in front of us,” said Gerstenmaier, “but what a great start to the mission today.”
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