Video: Watch NASA's final shuttle mission

By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/8/2011 4:04:21 PM ET 2011-07-08T20:04:21

For the last time in history, a space shuttle and its crew rose heavenward from NASA's spaceport on Friday, defying gloomy weather and the deeper gloom over the end of a 30-year era of spaceflight.

Atlantis lifted off more than two minutes late, due to a last-minute glitch involving a system that verifies the retraction of a gas-venting arm from the shuttle. The launch team hustled to make sure the arm was indeed out of the way for launch, then restarted the count at T-minus-31 seconds.

The countdown was also marked by weather concerns that lingered nearly to the last minute. Mission managers issued a waiver just nine minutes before launch to let the count continue despite the possibility that rain showers might come too close. (They didn't.)

Image: Space Shuttle Atlantis, Sarah Paschall
David J. Phillip  /  AP
Sarah Paschall, of Jacksonville, Fla., looks out from her tent as she waits for the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on Friday in Titusville, Fla.

Once all the last-minute worries were resolved, Atlantis streaked flawlessly into the sky on a pillar of flame and thick clouds. A cheer went up from the legions of spectators who watched from Kennedy Space Center.

The tension of the final minutes was balanced by a sense of history. It will be at least three years before U.S. astronauts are once again sent into space on a U.S.-built spaceship. Launch director Mike Leinbach and Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson captured the mood in an exchange just before launch.

"On behalf of the greatest team in the world, good luck to you and your crew on the final flight of a true American icon," Leinbach told Ferguson. "For the final time ... good luck, Godspeed, and have a little fun up there."

Ferguson thanked the launch team and said: "The shuttle is always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through. We're not ending the journey today, Mike, we're completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. ... Let's light this fire one more time, Mike, and witness this great nation at its best."

The main objective of this final flight is to build up the International Space Station's stockpile of supplies and spare parts to see it through the next year. After Atlantis lands, NASA is due to prepare the orbiter for museum display, as it is already doing with the fleet's other two spaceships, Discovery and Endeavour.

Hundreds of thousands of spectators surrounded the space center for Friday's program-ending liftoff. Traffic tie-ups lasted for hours on roads around the launch site. By the time Atlantis rose from the pad, long lines of cars were parked along viewing areas, in median strips, anywhere that motorists could catch a vew.

Kenneth Cox, 25, an airport employee from Indiana, was part of a group of friends toasting the shuttle with champagne along U.S. 1 in Titusville, Fla. "It's the closing chapter of 30 years," Cox, who went to space camp when he was in the fifth grade, told The Associated Press.

NASA said about 45,000 guests were cleared to watch the liftoff from Kennedy Space Center, in addition to the center's own employees.

The VIP list included 14 members of Congress, Attorney General Eric Holder, singers Gloria Estefan and Jimmy Buffett, and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Also in attendance were more than 150 Twitter users invited to Kennedy Space Center for a "tweetup," plus Elmo from TV's "Sesame Street."

'See you in a couple of days'
Ferguson's crew includes three other veteran astronauts: pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. It's the smallest crew since 1983, and that's because they'd have to be rescued by a series of Russian Soyuz craft if anything went wrong with Atlantis.

Image: Crew walkout
Gary I Rothstein  /  EPA
Atlantis' crew leaves their quarters at Kennedy Space Center for the launch pad. Clockwise from lower right are commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.

Atlantis is due to dock with the space station on Sunday. NASA astronaut Ron Garan watched the launch from orbit and wished Atlantis' crew Godspeed in a Twitter update. "See you in a couple of days," he wrote.

The foursome's main job is to transfer tons of supplies from the Italian-made Raffaello logistics module, riding in Atlantis' cargo bay, into the space station. The extra supplies will keep the space station's crew provisioned through the end of 2012. The astronauts will also drop off an experimental package aimed at testing the capability of refueling satellites robotically, and bring a faulty coolant pump back from the station.

One spacewalk is to be conducted during the 12-day mission, but Atlantis' crew will play only a supporting role for two spacewalkers from the space station's six-person crew.

If the mission proceeds as currently scheduled, Atlantis would land back at Kennedy Space Center on July 20, the 42th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Atlantis would then be readied for display at the space center.

This final mission, known as STS-135, marks the 33rd flight of Atlantis and the 135th flight for the entire shuttle fleet.

During a post-launch briefing, mission managers admitted that they were choked up by the launch. "To me it looked like it was lifting off in slow motion," said Mike Moses, head of the pre-launch mission management team. "It was very moving. It was very beautiful."

Leinbach recalled a moment he shared with Kennedy Space Center's deputy director, Bill Dowdell. 'We put our arms around each other, and looked at it and said, 'We will never see that again,'" Leinbach told journalists.

After the launch, he and his team lingered at the Launch Control Center. "It seemed like we didn't want to leave," Leinbach said. "It was like the end of a party, and you just don't want to go."

New mission for NASA
The retirement of Atlantis and its sister shuttles is in line with a plan drawn up years ago, which called for NASA to stop spending money on shuttle flights so it could concentrate on developing spaceships to go beyond Earth orbit. NASA is aiming to send humans to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and to Mars and its moons by the mid-2030s.

Officials at NASA, in Congress and at the White House all emphasized the new direction that they set for the government-led space program:

  • "Today's launch may mark the final flight of the space shuttle," President Barack Obama said in a statement, "but it propels us into the next era of our never-ending adventure to push the very frontiers of exploration and discovery in space."
  • "With today's final launch of the space shuttle, we turn the page on a remarkable period of America's history in space while beginning the next chapter in our nation's extraordinary story of exploration ... American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half-century, because we've laid the foundation for success, and for us at NASA, failure is not an option," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told agency employees in a video statement.
  • “Today marks the end of one era, and the beginning of the next,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a statement. "Now, NASA will start building a new monster rocket that will help get us to Mars."

While NASA focuses on exploration, the job of resupplying the space station and transporting astronauts to and from low Earth orbit would be left at first to spacecraft operated by Russia and NASA's other international partners. Eventually, U.S. commercial spacecraft would help fill the gap. One of NASA's commercial partners, California-based SpaceX, is planning a test cargo run to the space station later this year.

SpaceX and other companies are receiving tens of millions of dollars from NASA to build spaceships capable of carrying astronauts as well as cargo, but those companies say it will take at least three years with adequate funding to put those spacecraft into operation. None of those spaceships will match the shuttle's 25-ton cargo-carrying capacity.

Bittersweet mood
The mood at Kennedy Space Center for the last launch was decidedly bittersweet. Astronauts from past missions circulated around the press area and reminisced about days gone by.

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Retired astronaut Bob Crippen, who flew on the first shuttle mission back in 1981, said he was "proud of what the shuttle has done" over the past 30 years. "But I'm disappointed that we're standing it down without the capability to put our astronauts in orbit ourselves," he told msnbc.com.

Crippen, along with other former astronauts and flight directors, put his name to a letter asking NASA to delay Atlantis' launch for more than a year, restart the production lines for shuttle components and keep the program going. On Thursday, however, Crippen acknowledged that "that boat's already sailed ... I don't believe we're going to turn anything around."

The shuttle workforce has already been reduced in anticipation of the program's end, and thousands are due to be laid off soon after the shuttle lands. Crippen said he was sad that so many people — including his daughter, a shuttle crew trainer — were losing their jobs. "But I'm proud that they've kept their focus," he said, "and that they want to get off this mission and make it as much a success as the first one."

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Photos: The final countdown: Shuttle Atlantis

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  1. Atlantis rising

    The space shuttle Atlantis makes its maiden voyage on Oct. 3, 1985, for the Defense Department's STS-51-J mission. At 176,413 pounds, Atlantis is nearly 3.5 tons lighter than Columbia, which was the heaviest shuttle. Atlantis is the lightest shuttle of the remaining fleet, weighing 3 pounds less than the shuttle Endeavour (with the three main engines). Atlantis is also the last space shuttle to be retired.

    Other statistics:
    Length: 122.17 feet
    Height: 56.58 feet
    Wingspan: 78.06 feet (Phil Sandlin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First of its kind

    NASA's Magellan spacecraft is deployed from Atlantis' cargo bay in 1989 during the STS-30 mission. The Venus orbiter was the first interplanetary probe launched from a space shuttle. Later that year, Atlantis launched the Galileo probe to Jupiter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mission to Mir

    NASA and the Russian space agency kicked off a new era in international space cooperation during the STS-71 mission in June 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia's Mir space station for the first time. This historic photo of the linked spacecraft was taken from a Russian Soyuz capsule during a fly-around. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Here's looking at you

    The space shuttle Atlantis begins the slow journey to Launch Pad 39A from the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in preparation for the launch of STS-79 in September 1996. This dramatic view, looking directly down onto the shuttle stack, was taken from the roof of the 525-foot-tall VAB. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Science in orbit

    Astronaut Shannon Lucid floats through the tunnel that connects Spacelab to Atlantis' cabin on Sept. 24, 1996. The Spacelab module rode in the shuttle's cargo bay and provided more space for scientific experiments. During this STS-79 mission, Atlantis linked up with Russia's Mir space station and brought Lucid back to Earth. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Lighting up the night

    Atlantis streaks into the early morning sky from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 15, 1997, as seen in this long-exposure photo taken from Veterans Memorial Park in Titusville, Fla. Atlantis' 10-day STS-84 mission featured a docking with Russia's Mir space station and a crew transfer. Atlantis docked with Mir seven times before the space station was deorbited in 2001. (Brian Cleary / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Good as new

    The space shuttle Atlantis went back to its assembly plant in Palmdale, Calif., for 10 months of refurbishment and upgrades in 1997-1998. This aerial photo shows Atlantis taking a piggyback ride back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a modified Boeing 747 jet on Sept. 1, 1998. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Checking it out

    Atlantis' upgraded cockpit gets a once-over in 1999 from engineers and executives, including Roy Bridges, Kennedy Space Center's director (seated at bottom left), as well as Laural Patrick, Joann Morgan and George Selina. The upgrades made Atlantis the most modern orbiter in the shuttle fleet, with a control system as advanced as those found on commercial jet airliners and military aircraft. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tile tune-up

    Izeal Battle, a worker from United Space Alliance, repairs heat-shield tiles on the belly of the space shuttle Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 30, 2004. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Back in business

    Atlantis' astronauts leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center and board the "Astrovan" for the ride out to Launch Pad 39B on Sept. 8, 2006, while gun-toting guards keep watch. A faulty fuel gauge grounded the shuttle for an extra day, but on Sept. 9 the shuttle lifted off on its STS-115 mission to the International Space Station. It marked Atlantis' first launch since 2002. (Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Liftoff!

    The space shuttle Atlantis rises on a pillar of cloud from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 9, 2006. Atlantis delivered structural components to the International Space Station during its STS-115 mission, resuming an orbital construction project that was stopped following the 2003 Columbia tragedy. (Matt Stroshane / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Mission accomplished

    The clouds of Earth provide a backdrop for Atlantis shortly after its departure from the International Space Station on Sept. 17, 2006. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Night landing

    Atlantis lands amid darkness at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 21, 2006, bringing the STS-115 space station construction mission to a successful close. (Chris O'Meara / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kicking the tires

    Atlantis crew members Chris Ferguson and Dan Burbank look over their spaceship after landing at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 21, 2006. Ferguson was slated to be Atlantis' commander for NASA's final space shuttle mission. (Pierre Ducharme / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Blaze of glory

    The space shuttle Atlantis' solid rocket boosters light up for launch on June 8, 2007, beginning a flight to the International Space Station. This STS-117 mission marked the 250th orbital human spaceflight. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Watching the ascent

    NASA mission managers monitor Atlantis' liftoff from Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16, 2009. During the STS-129 mission, Atlantis delivered a payload platform and vital supplies to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Shuttle skywriting

    Nearly an hour after launch, contrails from the shuttle Atlantis' liftoff float above the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 8, 2007. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Last visit to Hubble

    Spacewalkers Andrew Feustel and John Grunsfeld work on the Hubble Space Telescope on May 16, 2009, during Atlantis' STS-125 mission. This marked the final Hubble servicing mission. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Making a list

    Atlantis astronaut Mike Massimino writes notes on a checklist during the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission on May 18, 2009. During this mission, Massimino became the first astronaut to send a Twitter update from orbit: "Launch was awesome!!" (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. First Family meets Atlantis

    NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi leads President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Sasha and Malia beneath the shuttle Atlantis during a tour of the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on April 29, 2011. At the time, Atlantis was being prepared for its final flight. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Final flight

    Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. The shuttle fleet's 135th and final mission, known as STS-135, brought supplies to the international space station. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Witnessing history

    Spectators watch the liftoff of Atlantis on its final mission at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 8, 2011. (Shawn Thew / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Last rendezvous

    The space shuttle Atlantis docks with the International Space Station for the last time on July 10, 2011. The shuttle delivered more than four tons of food, clothes and other supplies to keep the space station going in the post-shuttle era. NASA figures that this shipment will help keep the space station provisioned at least through the end of 2012. (NASA TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Flight into history

    This poster pays tribute to the shuttle Atlantis' quarter-century of spaceflight: Graphic elements include the International Space Station and Russia's Mir space station, the Hubble Space Telescope (which Atlantis visited during the last servicing mission) and Venus and Jupiter (which were the destinations for probes launched from Atlantis). Threaded through the design are the mission patches for each of Atlantis' flights. A copy of this tribute poster hangs in Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Amy Lombardo / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. An unprecedented view of the space shuttle Atlantis, appearing like a bean sprout against clouds and city lights, on its way home, as photographed by the Expedition 28 crew of the International Space Station on July 21, 2011. Airglow over Earth can be seen in the background. The Atlantis returned to Earth marking the end of the space shuttle era when its wheels touched down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Centre. 'After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history. It's come to a final stop,' Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson replied. (Nasa / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Johnson Space Center employees Shelley Stortz, left, and Jeremy Rea, right, hold hands as they watch space shuttle Atlantis land on July 21, 2011, in Houston. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Space shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 21, 2011. The Atlantis glided home through a moonlit sky for its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a 30-year odyssey for NASA's shuttle fleet. (Pierre Ducharme / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Phil Sandlin / AP
    Above: Slideshow (27) Final countdown for Atlantis
  2. Adam Zyglis / Buffalo News, PoliticalCartoons.com
    Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close
  3. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Interactive: Final shuttle mission in focus

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