CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Space shuttle Atlantis found a hole in the clouds and launched into history on Friday, dazzling hundreds of thousands of spectators who mobbed Florida's coast to see the program's final flight.
Despite a gloomy forecast – meteorologists said NASA only had a three-in-10 chance of getting Atlantis in the air – the STS-135 mission lifted off just about on time. A last-second technical issue with the liquid oxygen arm halted the countdown at 31 seconds. But moments later, the clock restarted and Atlantis flew into history.
Rising atop two pillars of flame, NASA's last active shuttle soon disappeared into the low clouds, but not before giving tourists, employees, and journalists the sight of a lifetime.
"That was awesome," one photographer said after witnessing the launch, his first. "I'm still shaking."
"The only way it could have been better is if I had found a way to stow away on board," offered Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana, himself a former astronaut.
The primary goal of the 13-day mission is to deliver a year's worth of supplies to the international space station. But NASA will also take advantage, one last time, of the shuttle's unique ability to bring large items back from space – in this case, a failed ammonia pump from the station that engineers want to study and hopefully learn from.
The mission will also be carrying an experiment to test the physics of refueling satellites in orbit.
The packed timeline will be a challenge for the four-person crew. It's NASA's smallest since 1983, limited by the number of people the space station can support in case Atlantis is fatally damaged on ascent. In that unlikely scenario, the four space veterans will have to ride home aboard Russian capsules – the same way astronauts will have to arrive to the station once Atlantis' mission is over.
Within three years, NASA hopes, private companies' space capsules will be ready to ferry astronauts to and from the station. That's the aim of the White House, anyway, which has directed the agency to focus on missions beyond low earth orbit now that the space station is complete.
For many, including several famous former astronauts who voiced their concerns in a letter to NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, the retirement of the shuttle fleet is coming too soon.
Astronauts from Apollo's Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell to Bob Crippen, who flew the first shuttle mission back in 1981, argued that the fleet's retirement jeopardizes the safety of the space station and its crew. But others have a more down-to-earth reason to be sad about the end of the program: Their jobs.
Thousands of workers in Florida and at other installations around the country will be laid off after Atlantis' final flight. The impact along Florida's Space Coast is expected to be painful, much like the end of the Apollo program was in the 1970s.
"It's devastated already," lamented Titusville barber shop owner Larry Dart. "You know, just the trickle down of employment to places like this -- a barber shop, gas stations, to grocery stores, to restaurants."
"We're going to be going through a tough time," KSC's Cabana conceded. "Change is hard and we're going to have a lot of folks going out the door."
For a few minutes on Friday, those concerns were put aside as Atlantis took to the sky for the last time. Crowds gathered around the historic countdown clock, and as the digits all hit zero, cheers and applause erupted, only to be drowned out seconds later by the roar of the ascending shuttle.
Then, it was back to reality.
"It did take a while to leave the control room," launch director Mike Leinbach said afterwards. "It seemed like you didn't want to leave – the end of a party and you don't want to go."
Atlantis is expected to land on July 20, but may get an extra day in space. Upon her return, she'll be decommissioned and prepped for display as a museum piece down the road at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.