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Atlantis Lifts Off Into History, Launching Last Shuttle Mission

Against grim weather odds, space shuttle Atlantis and her four-person crew made history on Friday, blasting off from the launch pad and soaring into the clouds, bound for space and the International Space Station for the last time.

As of 11:39 am ET, mission control was reporting that Atlantis was “safely in its preliminary orbit, following a flawless launch from the Kennedy Space Center, albeit a couple minutes late.” Also, “three good main engines, three good auxiliary power units, three good fuel cells.”

And from NASA via twitter:

With the space station flying 220 miles high & east of Christchurch, New Zealand, space shuttle Atlantis launched at 11:29 a.m. EDT.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

The launch marks the 135th and very last of America’s 30-year space shuttle program, which began when shuttle Columbia lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on April 12, 1981 and orbited the Earth 37 times.

Check out Miles O’Brien’s live webcast for Spaceflight NOW here.

By 10 a.m. the shuttle was fueled, the four-member crew on board, the countdown ticking and NASA tweeting hopeful updates and reporting no major technical issues. Mission managers remained cautiously hopeful throughout the morning, with everyone eying the Cape Canaveral skies. Hundreds of thousands turned out to watch the launch.

During its 12-day trip, Atlantis will haul 8,000 pounds — a year’s worth of supplies — to the International Space Station, including filter tanks, food, clothes, water sampling kits, a power unit and laptop computers. Also onboard will be a 650-pound module equipped with tools designed for refueling orbiting satellites. The module will be delivered to the space station, where it will start performing mock refueling missions in conjunction with the Canadian Dextre robot in December. The crew will return with a failed International Space Station ammonia pump, to be studied by NASA engineers.

Orbiting the earth along with the crew will be the shuttle’s first iPhone equipped with an app to be used for experiments, along with several items commemorating the last mission – a flag from the STS-1 mission, a recipe card from Kennedy Space Center’s astronaut crew quarters, 800 tiny American flags, 500 mission patches and a NASCAR cap.

Atlantis flew its final flight with a crew of just four, rather than the usual six or seven. The reason, according to this New York Times story: “With no spare shuttle available to go and rescue the astronauts in case something goes wrong, the Americans would have to turn to the Russians to retrieve their crew from the International Space Station. And the Russian spacecraft — known as Soyuz capsules — hold only three astronauts, so two people would have to fly up and bring home the Americans one at a time.”

Earlier this week, science correspondent Miles O’Brien reflected back on his near 20-year career covering 41 space shuttle launches in an interview with Hari Sreenivasan. He recounted the highlights and low points, from reporting from the launch pad with news legend Walter Cronkite to helping his viewers make sense of the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

But he also posed questions about the legacy of the 30-year shuttle program. Was the program a technological dead end? Will NASA regain the capability to continue space exploration? How will the agency achieve its goals of pressing further into deep space?

Also, what will the loss of the space shuttle mean for the International Space Station? “That station is up there, it’s just now achieving the beginnings of its capability, and frankly it could use that shuttle for its capability to bring things up to it and down from it,” Miles said in the interview. “And no vehicle on the horizon is going to be able to do that.”

When Atlantis touches down for the last time, it will retire with shuttles Endeavour and Discovery. Private companies like Boeing and SpaceX are expected to eventually step in to ferry humans to and from low-earth orbit.

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