NASA’s last space shuttle blasts into history

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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 2 1/2 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though, the countdown was delayed not by the weather but by the need to verify that the launch pad support equipment was retracted all the way.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, addressing NASA launch director Mike Leinbach. “We’re not ending the journey today … we’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end.”

He added: “Let’s light this fire one more time, Mike, and witness this great nation at its best.”

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.

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