Atlantis carried a four-member crew to the International Space Station for a 12-day mission. A stormy weather forecast had threatened to delay the launch, but clouds thinned an hour before the scheduled blastoff.
"On behalf of the greatest team in the world, good luck to you and your crew on the final flight of an American icon," NASA launch director Mike Leinbach told the crew just before launch.
Atlantis's commander Chris Ferguson responded: "We're not ending the journey today, we're completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. Let's light this shuttle one more time, Mike, and witness this nation at its best."
Photograph by Morry Gash, AP
Leaving the Launch Pad
The space shuttleAtlantis roared up from Launch Pad 39-A and was visible for 42 seconds before it disappeared into the clouds over Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
"It truly was an awesome, spectacular launch," space center director Bob Cabana said at a press conference Friday. "The only way it could've been better was if I had found a way to stow away on there somehow."
Atlantis is carrying more than 8,000 pounds (3,628 kilograms) of food, supplies, and scientific instruments to the space station as part of its mission. The space shuttle is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station on Sunday and return to Earth on July 20.
Photograph by Michael Berrigan, Reuters
Shuttle's Pillars of Flame
Atlantis streaked into space Friday atop twin columns of fire and smoke that left a towering plume over the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center.
Upon its return, the shuttle will be retired and put on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
Atlantis's sister shuttles—Endeavour, Discovery, and Enterprise—will find new homes at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, the National Air an Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, and the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York City, respectively.
After Atlantis safely reached space, NASA commentator Rob Navias said from the Johnson Space Center in Houston: "For the last time, the shuttle's engines have fallen silent."
With the space shuttles out of commission, NASA will have to rely on Russian Soyuz vehicles to transport astronauts and supplies to the space station for the next several years. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recently addressed concerns that the delay could threaten the U.S. space program.
"Some say that our final shuttle mission will mark the end of America's 50 years of dominance in human spaceflight," Bolden said in a NASA video.
"As a former astronaut and the current NASA administrator, I’m here to tell you that American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half century, because we have laid the foundation for success—and for NASA, failure is not an option."
Still from NASA TV via Reuters
Crowds clogged a bridge and halted traffic in Titusville, Florida, on Friday as they gathered to watch Atlantis's final send-off into space. NASA estimated that between 750,000 and a million people turned out to watch the last space shuttle launch.
"I think the shuttle program is ending exactly as it should," Mike Moses, chair of the pre-mission Mission Management Team, told reporters at a press conference Friday.
"We've built the International Space Station, we're stocking it up for the future and are ready to hand it off, and we finished really strong. That said, we're not ready to look back or forward—we still have this mission to complete. So we're going to stay very focused on the mission at hand."
Spectators recline in collapsible chairs and huddle in blankets in the early morning hours Friday at Jetty Park, Florida, as they await the final launch of Atlantis.
According to the space agency, the final space shuttle launch was also attended by luminaries such as Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple; 14 members of Congress; John Holdren, the U.S. President's science advisor; and two former NASA administrators.
On Thursday five-year-old Freddy Porter pilots a toy space shuttle at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The spacecraft behind him are part of the visitor center's "Rocket Garden," a collection of historic and retired missiles, rockets, and spacecraft. Shortly after Atlantis's final liftoff, shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach recalled the mood in the control room Friday.
"It did take a while to clear the control room. A lot of us walked around and shook everybody's hands," Leinbach said at press conference.
"It seemed like we didn't want to leave. It was like the end of a party, and you just don't want to go. We wanted to hang around a little bit longer and relish our friends and what we've accomplished. So it was very special. A lot of pats on the back today."