The End of An Era

Atlantis Lifts Off for Last Space Shuttle Mission

By  NEW YORK TIMES

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — For the last time, the engines of a space shuttle roared, the ground rumbled, and the shuttle Atlantis rose off the launching pad and quickly disappeared into the gray, overcast sky.

By dawn Friday, cars and Winnebagos lined the sides of roadways with the prime views as hundreds of thousands of people came to watch the 135th and last flight in the space shuttle program. The program, which began in 1981, comes to an end when the Atlantis’ wheels roll to a stop on the runway in two weeks.

The Atlantis is carrying 8,000 pounds of supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station.

With storms rumbling around the area, forecasts put just a 30 percent chance of favorable weather for the launching of the Atlantis. But the rain stayed far enough away, and the countdown, which encountered no significant setbacks, continued.

At 11:29 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the engines of the Atlantis ignited to propel it to orbit with its crew of four: Capt. Christopher J. Ferguson of the Navy; the pilot, Col. Douglas G. Hurley of the Marines; Sandra H. Magnus; and Rex J. Walheim, a retired Air Force colonel.

According to NASA, the luminaries who came included Joe Gibbs, the former Washington Redskins football coach; Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer; and the singer Jimmy Buffett. So did 14 members of Congress; John Holdren, the president’s science adviser; Eric Holder, the United States attorney general; Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and two former NASA administrators, Daniel Goldin and Michael Griffin.

And Robert L. Crippen, a retired Navy captain who the pilot of the first shuttle flight, came to watch the last one.

The last shuttle flight also contained a piece of the first flight. The shuttle’s solid rocket boosters are recovered and refurbished, and the top segment of the left booster that helped lift Atlantis off the ground on Friday first flew on the first flight, on April 12, 1981.

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