Final Space Shuttle Launch Beats Tough Weather Odds

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Space Shuttle Atlantis soared into orbit and the history books July 8, kicking off the last-ever mission of NASA’s storied shuttle program.

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 countdown 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 from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, thrilling 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. Some 2,500 reporters were on hand to cover the event.

After 135 launches over 30 years, the space shuttle will never streak into the sky again.

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.

Atlantis’ four-astronaut crew, led by Commander Chris Ferguson, will deliver about 4,300 kilograms of cargo to the station. Atlantis is also delivering several different experiments, one of which — the Robotic Refueling Mission — is an attempt to demonstrate a way to refuel satellites robotically on orbit.

At press time, Atlantis was scheduled to dock with the space station July 10. The shuttle is scheduled to return to Earth for the final time on July 20.

Upon its return, Atlantis will be prepped for public display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.