Atlantis lifts off for last scheduled flight
CAPE CANAVERAL -- Space shuttle Atlantis thundered off its launchpad at Kennedy Space Center into cloudless skies Friday afternoon and headed to the International Space Station on the 32nd and final planned mission of its 25-year career.
It was a bittersweet moment for the shuttle workers standing outside the landmark Vehicle Assembly Building to watch the first of the final three launches before the shuttle is retired later this year. It was also emotional for the six-member crew that strapped into Atlantis for possibly the last time.
Said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, minutes before launch: "I'd like to wish you all good luck and Godspeed and have some fun out there."
Replied Atlantis commander Ken Ham: "Thank you to the thousands of folks out there who have taken care of this bird for a long time…. If it's ok with you , we're going to take her out of the barn and take her for a few more laps around the planet."
Astronaut Dave Wolf watched the launch from a top of the Orlando Sentinel's office at KSC. "It never gets old," he said.
Tens of thousands of spectators crowded Space Coast beaches and causeways to catch a glimpse of the historic flight. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and David Letterman, host of the CBS "Late Show," were on hand, along with 150 space enthusiasts selected by NASA for a "tweetup."