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July 8, 2011 6:39 pm
The last space shuttle mission beat uncertain Florida weather, as Atlantis blasted off just two minutes behind schedule following a minor technical glitch.
Almost every patch of publicly accessible ground around Kennedy Space Center was crammed with well-wishers – a million people by some estimates – who had poured into north-eastern Florida to witness the 135th shuttle launch, marking the end of the spacecraft’s 30-year era.
They were rewarded with the traditional launch display of smoke and fire as Atlantis roared up from its launch pad. But in less than a minute, it had disappeared from view, passing through a layer of cloud on its way to a final rendezvous with the International Space Station in orbit 350km above the Earth.
Though Nasa meteorologists had warned there was only a 30 per cent chance of the sky being clear enough to launch on Friday, the predicted thunderstorms kept far enough away to permit a smooth countdown. The only delay happened 31 seconds before lift-off, when technicians had to spend a couple of minutes checking that all the support equipment was fully retracted.
The final minutes of the countdown were punctuated with patriotic and sentimental observations from the Atlantis crew and mission directors, broadcast to the world by Nasa’s online television coverage.
“Good luck to you and your crew on your final trip as American icons,” launch director Michael Leinbach told Chris Ferguson, commander of Atlantis and its crew of three men and one woman. “Good luck, godspeed and have a little fun up there.”
“The shuttle’s always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through,” Mr Ferguson said shortly before the shuttle’s 11.29am local time lift-off. “We’re not ending the journey today. We’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end.”
Atlantis is due to arrive at the International Space Station on Sunday morning, where the resident crew of six will unload 3.5 tonnes of food, spare parts and scientific supplies.
The mission is scheduled to last for 12 days, with Atlantis landing back at Kennedy Space Center on July 20. Like the other surviving shuttles, Endeavour and Discovery, it will go on public display at US museums.
With the ending of the shuttle programme, many thousands of Nasa staff and contractors’ employees in Florida will lose their jobs.
Russian Soyuz rockets will then be the only way to take people to and from the space station, until promised private-sector replacements for the shuttle have been developed and proved themselves safe and economical.
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