CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA sent its last shuttle skyward Friday with a magnificent roar that put Atlantis and its four astronauts into space and the agency’s manned-spaceflight program closer to an end.
With the apparently flawless 11:29 a.m. blastoff, Atlantis – which admirers call “the incredible machine” – carried supplies for the International Space Station, plus the memories of glory and tragedy of a 30-year program.
“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,” Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson told Launch Director Mike Leinbach. “We’re not ending a journey today, Mike, we’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end.”
Joining Ferguson on the grand-finale mission are pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus. They blasted into space through a hole in clouds; rain had plagued the Cape for two days and kept the odds of a launch low almost until the moment it happened.
“We got lucky,” Leinbach said. “We just got lucky is the only way you could put it.”
That luck extended to hundreds of thousands of spectators who poured into the Cape Canaveral area to catch the historic launch, the last big rocket blastoff expected at the space center for perhaps a decade.
At Kennedy Space Center, the emotions were tinged with bittersweet pride and sorrow. Thousands of people spent whole careers working on the shuttle program at Kennedy, and most of their jobs are gone, or soon will be. When Atlantis reached orbit, the launch-control team stayed in place to savor the moment.
“It seemed like we didn’t want to leave,” Leinbach said.
Atlantis is the 135th space-shuttle mission carried out by five shuttles – including two, Challenger and Columbia, that never came home, torn apart in tragedies that killed seven astronauts each in 1986 and 2003.
In the other missions, the space shuttles, which also included Discovery and Endeavour, proved they were capable of everything planners envisioned when they first dreamed up a multipurpose, reusable spaceship in the early 1970s.
Since Columbia’s first liftoff on April 12, 1981, the shuttles have launched space probes and satellites from their cargo bays, gone back to fix and retrieve satellites and made several repair runs to the Hubble Space Telescope.
The shuttle’s greatest legacy may be the space station itself, which will be NASA’s chief manned-spaceflight focus for the next decade. It will be the platform for hundreds of science- and technology-research projects that cannot be conducted on Earth. The shuttles carried up all the big pieces, and shuttle astronauts assembled them into what is now a 360-foot-long orbiting international laboratory.