Despite the threat of bad weather, space shuttle Atlantis blasted off at 11.29amEST (4.29pm Irish time) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, bound for the International Space Station on NASA’s 135th and final space shuttle mission.
"Bittersweet day w/final @NASA launch. Godspeed & good luck to #STS135 crew!" mission commander Chris Ferguson tweeted shortly before liftoff in front of a crowd of about 750,000 cheering spectators. Among them were 14 members of US Congress, four members of the Kennedy family, singers Jimmy Buffett and Gloria Estefan, and Robert Crippen, the first shuttle pilot.
Forecasters had predicted a 70pc chance of unsuitable weather for liftoff, but NASA cleared the shuttle to go and Atlantis took off without a hitch on its 33rd flight.
Atlantis‘ crew – Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim – dubbed "the final four", are delivering supplies to the space station during their 12-day mission, such as a year’s supply of food and a pair of iPhone 4s to be used in experiments. They will also return items to Earth, such as rubbish from the space station.
Atlantis will carry the food on the off-chance resupply vehicles are delayed and can’t get to the ISS on time with supplies in the future.
Once Atlantis is back on Earth, NASA will retire its fleet of orbiters because of high operating costs and the need to free up funds for work on a new launch system that can carry people and cargo beyond the space station’s orbit, where shuttles can’t go.
Photo: Atlantis docked at the International Space Station during its May 2010 mission