KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida—The space shuttle Atlantis launched into orbit on Friday morning despite the threat of thunderstorms.
The shuttle lifted off slowly from the launch pad just two minutes late and in defiance of cloudy skies that had threatened the mission. Commander Chris Ferguson and crew members Sandy Magnus, Doug Hurley, and Rex Walheim will spend 12 days on the mission.
It is the last time astronauts will go into orbit aboard a space shuttle. The program is being retired after 30 years, 135 launches, and the loss of two of the five shuttles, along with 14 astronauts.
"For the final time, Fergie, Doug, Sandy, and Rex, good luck, godspeed, and have a little fun up there," launch director Mike Leinbach told the shuttle crew before liftoff.
Usually six or seven astronauts are aboard a shuttle mission but only four can go this time because they would have to be rescued by Russian Soyuz craft if anything went wrong with Atlantis. After this mission NASA will rely on the Russians to get astronauts into and out of space.
The four crew will transfer tons of supplies from the Italian-made Raffaello logistics module from the cargo bay of Atlantis into the space station. The extra supplies will keep the space station's crew provisioned through the end of 2012.
They are also delivering a new module to help process astronaut urine into drinking water, dropping off an experimental package to test the capability of refueling satellites robotically, and carrying the first iPhone into orbit.
Local officials estimated that nearly a million people showed up to watch the last spectacular takeoff of the shuttle. They crowded beaches and bridges, filled hotels to the brim, and overbooked flights to nearby airports.
Among the 45,000 guests at the Kennedy Space Center were Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Attorney General Eric Holder, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden released a video about the shuttle program.
The the two other remaining shuttles—Endeavour and Discovery—have already been retired. Atlantis will go on display at the Kennedy Space Center after this mission.
The United States will now rely on Russian Space Agency missions to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA is working on its next generation of equipment to take men and women into space—the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, also known as Orion. The cone-shaped capsule will sit on the head of a rocket and can comfortably carry four astronauts and equipment. It is designed to be safe and, unlike the shuttle, cannot be guided back to Earth. It will splash down in the water like the earlier Apollo missions and as Russian missions now do.
Space shuttles were originally designed to be big space trucks, cheaply and efficiently carrying cargo and astronauts into space and then gliding back to Earth to be used over and over again. But costs quickly ballooned over early estimates, and the loss of two shuttles—Columbia in 2003 and Challenger in 1986—made many Americans wonder if the vehicles were worth the risk.