Space shuttle Atlantis blasted her way through partly cloudy Florida skies Friday afternoon, marking the beginning of the end for the shuttle program.
Thousands of NASA workers, space enthusiasts, and Twitter users had flocked to the Cape for the bittersweet milestone, and they were not disappointed. As Atlantis climbed off the pad, cheers and applause broke out – only to be quickly drowned out by the signature roar from the shuttle's booster rockets.
NASA managers afterwards called it a "picture-perfect launch."
"Great launch today," offered launch director Mike Leinbach. "Very, very proud of the team. Start of a great mission."
Atlantis's first flight 25 years ago was a military mission that lifted off when Ronald Reagan was president and the Soviet Union was still perceived as a threat. Just a decade later, Atlantis would make space history by docking with the Russian space station Mir.
Now, things will come full circle with Atlantis's 32nd and possibly final flight. She will be carrying a new module – one that was built in Russia – to the international space station, bringing construction of the orbiting outpost almost to a close.
Atlantis's six veteran astronauts will also be delivering other supplies as NASA plans for life after the space shuttle program. Only two flights remain on the docket; Discovery and Endeavour will round out the flights with missions in September and November, respectively.
NASA will rely on Russian Soyuz capsules to transfer astronauts to and from the space station. Originally, the space agency planned to develop a new fleet of capsules and rockets based on the shuttle hardware. But the Obama administration has canceled funding for that program in favor of commercial investment, setting up a showdown in Congress over America's future in space.
Riding on that decision are thousands of jobs on Florida's Space Coast. Between 5,000 and 8,000 workers stand to lose their jobs as the program ends.
Some of those workers are pinning their hopes on an extra resupply flight that could be scheduled. If NASA opts to use the one extra giant orange fuel tank that was built – a decision that would have to be made by June, they said today – that flight would likely fall to Atlantis.
"The station would be fine without the flight...but if somebody wants us to do it, we could go do it," offered Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier.
As it stands, Atlantis will go through the normal post-flight procedures when she lands in 12 days and then sit on standby in case a rescue flight is needed during either of the final two scheduled missions.
NASA plans to announce this summer what museum will wind up with Atlantis.
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