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.
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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.
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 July 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.”
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Endeavour, with a crew of six astronauts, blasted off at 8:56 on NASA‘s next-to-last shuttle mission. NASA officials said Sunday that conditions — from weather to technical issues — couldn’t look much better
“Gabrielle landed safely in Florida. Smooth flight with STS 134 astronaut Greg Johnson‘s family,” read the post on the Arizona congresswoman’s Facebook page. “Thanks to NASA for great fly by of launch pad.”
“Glad to have you here,” KSC staff said via Twitter.
Giffords, who was shot in the head during a mass shooting at a Tucson political event in January that killed six people, came for the April 29 launch attempt, then flew back to Houston to resume her rehabilitation work.
Her staff says she will not make any public appearances. Her launch viewing location has not been disclosed. The staff plans to hold a press conference after the launch.
President Obama, who came for the initial launch try, will not attend. He will be in Memphis visiting residents flooded out of their homes.
The weather is forecast to be clear, and the hydraulic power system trouble that prompted the delay has been fixed.
“We should be in good shape,” NASA Shuttle Launch Integration Manager Mike Moses said. “In our minds, we are good to go.”
Joining Kelly on the 16-day trip to the International Space Station are pilot Greg Johnson and mission specialists Greg Chamitoff, Drew Feustel, Mike Fincke and Roberto Vittori of the European Space Agency.
Endeavour’s grand finale is a 16-day mission to deliver a $2 billion cosmic ray detector to the space station. Also flying in the shuttle’s expansive cargo bay: a pallet of large spare parts that will help keep the outpost operating through at least 2020.
The flight is Endeavour’s 25th since a maiden voyage 19 years ago this month. The youngest shuttle orbiter was built after Challenger and its crew were lost in 1986.
The Endeavour mission faces schedule challenges as a result of the two-week slip. The delay knocked the work schedules of the shuttle and station crews out of sync.
The problem stems from the planned May 23 return to Earth of three station crewmembers: Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev, U.S. astronaut Catherine Coleman and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency.
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