Before liftoff, the clock froze at 31 seconds, leaving the crowd standing for an extra 21
2 minutes of will-she-or-won’t-she anticipation as engineers faced a final, minor hiccup. After confirming retraction of a vent arm at the launch pad, mission control gave the go-ahead, sending Atlantis on its way.
Eight and a half minutes later, soaring at 17,000 miles an hour above Earth, Atlantis shut off its main engines for the last time, having achieved orbit for a final 12-day mission, carrying Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.
“This is mission control Houston,” said liftoff announcer Rob Navias from mission control in Houston. “Atlantis is safely in its preliminary orbit.”
The micro-drama of a tropical storm front almost overtook the larger drama swirling around the end of an era Friday morning as thunderstorms and rain bearing down on Kennedy Space Center almost scrubbed the final space shuttle mission for at least a day. Rain pounded the space center Thursday, leaving viewers sodden and skeptical they would get to catch a glimpse of history.
They did. Hundreds of thousands of space fans gathered on roadsides, causeways, parks and bridges along the Florida’s Space Coast, and some 45,000 VIPs rolled onto the vast space center grounds Friday morning, NASA officials said, including 14 members of Congress and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.
According to the Associated Press, by 6 a.m., cars and RVs were packed into almost every available space along U.S. 1 in Titusville, with cameras already trained on the launch pad in the hazy clouds across the Indian River. Many had planted chairs and staked out viewing locations just feet from the water. Some were still cocooned in sleeping bags as the sun rose.
The 12-day mission of Atlantis closes out 30 years of space shuttle flights, leaving NASA without a means to shoot people into space for the first time since 1981.
If not for its status as the final flight, this mundane supply run to the international space station would have drawn little attention. Atlantis will bring up 8,200 pounds of gear to the six-person outpost, install a robotic satellite refueling experiment on the space station, and haul down trash and a broken ammonia pump.
But spaceflight is never routine, as the restless gyrations of the morning made evident. NASA weather officers kept a close eye on a low cloud deck and rain clouds to the north of the launch pad 39A. Before giving the go-ahead, NASA waived one of its weather criteria: a cloudless sky near the KSC emergency landing strip. “Clear to launch Atlantis,” word came down, and the countdown clock — held, as usual, at T-minus nine minutes — rolled.