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Liftoff! Atlantis Blasts Off on Final Flight

Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off into a Florida sky and into history as it flawlessly launched in the final mission of the Space Shuttle program.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off into a Florida sky and into history as it flawlessly launched in the final mission of the Space Shuttle program.

Hundreds of thousands of people gathered to watch the 135th launch of the space shuttle, despite initial weather reports that had threatened to postpone the lift-off.

Four veteran astronauts are on board and are expected to catch up to the International Space Station in two days.

WIDE ANGLE: Space Shuttle's 30-Year Odyssey

Rain and heavy clouds had shrouded the launch area for days before the launch, which occurred at 11:29 a.m. ET. Although NASA directors had predicted a 70 percent chance that weather could delay the flight, in the end Atlantis was only two and a half minutes late.

At a post-launch press conference, Mike Moses, NASA's Launch Integration Manager, said the launch team were tracking a few showers breaking out near the launch pad, but as no thunder storms were developing the decision was made to clear Atlantis for launch.

WATCH VIDEO: A cargo ship replenishes space station supplies just days before shuttle Discovery is due to launch.

With pre-launch tensions released, there was time for some light humor.

"[Mike Moses] makes it sound like a tough decision, let me tell you how that really came down. We met in my office and we flipped a coin," quipped Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach at the decision to give a "GO" for launch. "That's how we really make decisions! [...] Now the program's over we can divulge some of our secrets."

"We went over some strategy and the weather was such that [we thought] we had a decent shot at it," Leinbach continued. "We've tanked before with worse predictions than that, so we went with it today... we got lucky. We got lucky is a way you could put it."

Rather than the weather causing launch issues, the slight delay was due to the need to verify that the launch pad support equipment was fully retracted and wouldn't interfere with blast off.

NASA is ending its 30-year program with a flight that delves deep into the mundane.

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More than five tons of food, clothing, supplies and science equipment (including a urine-recycling bag) are packed aboard shuttle Atlantis.

The plan is to deliver the goods to the International Space Station, which is finally open for business after 11 years of construction, 220 miles above Earth.

NASA hopes the stockpile will buy some time in case the companies it hired to fly cargo to the station run into problems. Both firms, Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp., are expected to begin deliveries next year.

"We built a heck of a national asset up in orbit -- an international laboratory. That alone is a great legacy of the shuttle program," said Mike Moses, NASA's shuttle integration manager at an earlier conference.

-- Irene Klotz contributed to this report.