Photo by Justin R. Patterson
CAPE CANAVERAL -- Thirty years and 135 missions after the space shuttle's debut, NASA launched a shuttle for the final time on Friday as Atlantis streaked into orbit from Kennedy Space Center.
The mission was the 33rd for Atlantis which first flew on Oct. 3, 1985, on a Department of Defense flight.
The on-time liftoff at 11:26 a.m. thrilled a crowd of up to one million people who packed viewing sites along the Space Coast for one last look at a spaceship that captured the imagination and attention of fans around the world.
PICTURES: FINAL LIFTOFF OF ATLANTIS, SHUTTLE PROGRAM
"And Fergie, for the final time...good luck, Godspeed and have a little fun up there," Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach radioed up to Atlantis Commander Chris Ferguson, giving him the "Go" for launch.
The orbiter roared off the pad, leaving behind a plume that hung majestically in the air. The crowds at the KSC press site cheered.
Because of the vast expense necessary to maintain and fly the shuttle fleet it was decided the craft had outlived its usefulness and it was brought to an end in a decision that will be debated in space circles for decades to come.
One of the points of contention is the shuttle should have been flown until a successor was in place to both guarantee the nation's leadership position in space and human access to space not to mention thousands of jobs that were lost at KSC.
With the International Space Station having years remaining in its lifetime, U.S. astronauts will reach the outpost on Russian Soyuz rockets at least through 2016.
Atlantis, with its crew of four veteran astronauts, is scheduled to dock with the station about 11 a.m. on Sunday to carry out its re-supply mission. Undocking is scheduled for about 2 a.m. on July 18 for a landing July 20 at KSC where the shuttle program will officially end with the call of "wheel stop."
After retirement, Atlantis is destined for its new home in a $20 million building at the KSC Visitor Complex.
MORE: FULL ATLANTIS COVERAGE
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