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NASA's last space shuttle mission blasts off into history

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Atlantis and four astronauts
rocketed into orbit Friday on NASA's last space shuttle voyage,
dodging bad weather and delighting hundreds of thousands of
spectators on hand to witness the end of an era.
It will be at least three years - possibly five or more - before
astronauts launch again from U.S. soil, and so this final journey
of the shuttle era packed in crowds and roused emotions on a scale
not seen since the Apollo moon shots.
After days of gloomy forecasts full of rain and heavy cloud
cover, the spaceship lifted off at 11:29 a.m. - just 2½ minutes
late - thundering away on the 135th shuttle mission 30 years and
three months after the very first flight. The four experienced
space fliers rode Atlantis from the same pad used more than a
generation ago by the Apollo astronauts.
The shuttle was visible for 42 seconds before disappearing into
the clouds.
NASA waived its own weather rules to allow the liftoff to go
forward. In the end, though, the countdown was delayed not by the
weather but by the need to verify that the launch pad support
equipment was retracted all the way.
The crew will deliver a year's worth of critical supplies to the
International Space Station and return with as much trash as
possible. Atlantis is scheduled to come home on June 20 after 12
days in orbit.
Before taking flight, Commander Christopher Ferguson saluted all
those who contributed over the years to the shuttle 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," he said. "We're not ending the journey today ... we're
completing a chapter of a journey that will never end."
It wasn't clear until the final moments of the countdown that
the launch would come off. That was fitting in a way, since
Florida's famously stormy weather delayed numerous shuttle missions almost from the start of the program and was a major reason spaceflight never became routine, as NASA had hoped for.
Hundreds of thousands of spectators jammed Cape Canaveral and surrounding towns for the emotional farewell. Kennedy Space Center itself was packed with shuttle workers, astronauts and 45,000
invited guests, the maximum allowed.
NASA's original shuttle pilot, Robert Crippen, now 73, was among
the VIPs. He flew Columbia, along with Apollo 16 moonwalker John
Young, on the inaugural test flight in 1981.
Other notables on the guest list: a dozen members of Congress,
Cabinet members, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, four
Kennedy family members, Jimmy Buffett, Gloria Estefan and two
former NASA chiefs.
The space shuttle was conceived even as the moon landings were under way, deemed essential for building a permanent space station. NASA brashly promised 50 flights a year - in other words, routine trips into space - and affordable service.
But the program suffered two tragic accidents that killed 14
astronauts and destroyed two shuttles, Challenger in 1986 and
Columbia in 2003. NASA never managed more than nine flights in a
single year. And the total tab was $196 billion, or $1.45 billion a
flight.
Yet there have been some indisputable payoffs: The International
Space Station would not exist if it were not for the shuttles, and
the Hubble Space Telescope, thanks to repeated tuneups by
astronauts, would be a blurry eye in the sky instead of the world's
finest cosmic photographer.
The station is essentially completed, and thus the shuttle's
original purpose accomplished. NASA says it is sacrificing the
shuttles because there is not enough money to keep the expensive
fleet going if the space agency is to aim for asteroids and Mars.
Thousands of shuttle workers will be laid off within days of
Atlantis' return, on top of the thousands who already have lost
their jobs. And the three remaining shuttles will become museum
pieces.
This day of reckoning has been coming since 2004, a year after
the Columbia tragedy, when President George W. Bush announced the retirement of the shuttle and put NASA on a course back to the
moon. President Barack Obama canceled the back-to-the-moon program in favor of trips to an asteroid and Mars.
But NASA has yet to work out the details of how it intends to
get there, and has not even settled on a spacecraft design.
The space shuttle demonstrates America's leadership in space,
and "for us to abandon that in favor of nothing is a mistake of
strategic proportions," lamented former NASA Administrator Michael
Griffin, who led the agency from 2005 to 2008.
After Atlantis' lights-out, 33rd flight, private rocket
companies will take over the job of hauling supplies and astronauts
to the space station. The first supply run is targeted for later
this year, while the first trip with astronauts is projected to be
years away.
Until those flights are up and running, American astronauts will
be hitching rides to and from the space station via Russian Soyuz
capsules, at more than $50 million per trip.
Russia will supply the rescue vessels for Ferguson and his crew
if Atlantis ends up severely damaged in flight. But the Russian
spaceships can carry only three people, including two crew members,
and any rescue would require a series of back-and-forth trips. That
is why only four astronauts are flying Atlantis, the smallest crew
in decades.
That reliance on Russia - with no other backup - has many space
veterans worried. A contingent of old-time flight directors and
astronauts, Crippen included, is seeking a last-ditch reprieve for
the space shuttle, at least until something is ready to take its
place.
Crippen acknowledged it is futile at this point.
"I'm afraid that ship has sailed," he said on the eve of the
launch. But noting the improvements that had been made in the
shuttles over the past three decades, he said: "Those vehicles, in
my opinion, could fly for another 30 years and could be flown
safely."
This last journey by Atlantis may be stretched to 13 days if
enough power can be conserved. Weather permitting, Atlantis will
return to Kennedy, where it will be put on public display.
Discovery and Endeavour already are retired and being prepped for
museums across the country.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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