ORLANDO, Fla.—The ground shook, the air thundered, and the crowd offered cheers, chants and tears as Atlantis rocketed toward the stars.
The final space shuttle mission, STS-135, marks the end of NASA's 30-year program, which began in 1981 with Columbia. Despite predictions that weather conditions would force a cancellation, an estimated 1 million visitors and 2,000 members of worldwide media looked on with awe from the Kennedy Space Center and surrounding areas.
STS-135 was initially a standby mission that would launch only if someone needed to be rescued from the International Space Station after the shuttle Endeavour traveled there in May. A last-minute boost of funding from Congress made one more flight possible, and Atlantis lifted off on Friday, July 8.
Cady Coleman is a retired astronaut with more than 500 hours in space, including a six-month stay at the International Space Station from December 2010 to May 2011. Coleman insists that space travel will continue. "The International Space Station is still up there, and we have everything we need to live on it," she said in an interview with the Alibi.
Most shuttles carry seven or eight astronauts, but Atlantis has a skeleton crew of only four because there are no vehicles large enough to carry a full team back to Earth all at once. Should the four be stranded on the space station, they would return one at a time on Russian Soyuz capsules over the course of a year.
Aboard the final NASA shuttle: Commander Capt. Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, Mission Specialist Sandra Magnus and Mission Specialist Rex Walheim. They're due home July 21. Atlantis will be in space for 13 days, which includes a dock at the station for more than a week.
Their priority was to deliver the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module, filled with supplies and spare parts for the folks aboard the space station. The module, about the size of a bus, was unloaded on Monday, July 11, and includes more than one ton of food that will see station residents through 2012. Another goal of STS-135 is to test out the possibility of refueling satellites in orbit using robotics.
But the launch of the ship—and the supplies—was touch-and-go on Friday. Clouds and rain had been a serious concern for the preceding week. Even if weather at the launch site is clear, there are also condition requirements at other sites where a shuttle could land if the mission is aborted. Those include: Edwards Air Force Base in California and White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, as well as others in Europe.
Around 4 a.m., a light rain was drizzling on the shuttle and around the launchpad. After a weather briefing four hours later, NASA announced there was only a 30 percent chance for liftoff.
Officials made it clear, though, that all Atlantis needed was a brief break in the clouds. Launch-viewing veterans at the press site kept their eyes on the giant countdown clock, which pauses for holds or resets in the event that the launch is called off.
Perhaps most anxious about the weather was the Atlantis crew, strapped into their seats and sealed behind the hatch, waiting more than two hours for the final weather report.
Then, the clouds parted, and the sun appeared over the crowds at the viewing areas. A renewed buzz could be heard from all in attendance. It seemed the weather was finally cooperating, but NASA still alternated between "go" and "no-go” due to rapidly changing conditions.
Finally, NASA announced all technical issues checked out and the shuttle would launch. Cheers erupted, and all heads turned toward the launchpad.
At 11:29 a.m., the solid rocket boosters ignited and Atlantis lifted off. A shock wave of sound hit the crowd about 12 seconds after ignition. Atlantis reached nearly 18,000 miles per hour to escape the pull of Earth's gravity. Smoke from the solid rocket boosters lingered for several minutes as attendees exchanged smiles and hugs, wishing Atlantis and its crew a successful mission.
Kennedy Space Center employees described Friday as emotional. A shuttle launch is always celebrated, but since this was the final mission, a feeling of sadness hovered, too. "I've worked here for 27 years," said one worker, tears welling in her eyes, "and today's launch is very bittersweet for me.”
NASA promises that even though shuttle transport is retiring, human space travel is far from over. President Obama has expressed his support for planetary exploration.
Retired astronaut Coleman said she was "born to travel to space," and that she felt extremely lucky to have been part of the shuttle program. She offered advice to young women looking to follow in her footsteps: “Study math, science, reading, writing and languages,” she said. “We also need new ideas on how to travel into space."