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Hundreds of thousands of spectators turned out to see the American shuttle fleet's final venture into orbit, 30 years and three months after the program began.
GARY HERSHORN
Hundreds of thousands of spectators turned out to see the American shuttle fleet's final venture into orbit, 30 years and three months after the program began.
Space shuttle Atlantis STS-135 sits on launch pad 39A while being fuelled for launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Space shuttle Atlantis STS-135 sits on launch pad 39A while being fuelled for launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Atlantis blasts off on final US space shuttle mission

Hundreds of thousands of spectators turned out to see the American shuttle fleet's final venture into orbit, 30 years and three months after the program began.

CAPE CANAVERAL // Atlantis has blasted off on NASA's last space shuttle launch.

The historic liftoff occurred 30 years and three months after the very first shuttle flight.

Four astronauts are riding Atlantis to orbit. The shuttle is bound for the International Space Station, making one final supply run. Atlantis holds a year's worth of supplies for the International Space Station.

Hundreds of thousands of spectators jammed Cape Canaveral and surrounding towns for the farewell. Kennedy Space Center itself was packed with shuttle workers, astronauts and 45,000 invited guests, the maximum allowed.

The flight will last 12 days. Weather permitting, Atlantis will return to Kennedy, where it will end up on permanent display.

An estimated 750,000 people were expected to jam Cape Canaveral and surrounding towns for this final shuttle launch, reminiscent of the crowds that gathered for the Apollo moon shots.

Among the expected VIPs: 14 members of Congress, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, four members of the Kennedy family, two former NASA administrators, singers Jimmy Buffett and Gloria Estefan, and the first shuttle pilot of them all, Robert Crippen.

Dozens of RVs and other vehicles already have claimed prime viewing spots along the Banana River.

NASA must launch Atlantis by Sunday or Monday, otherwise it will have to wait until at least July 16 because of an unmanned rocket launch scheduled for next week.

The 12-day mission will close out the space shuttle program, which began with the launch of Columbia in 1981. Atlantis will join Discovery and Endeavour in retirement, so NASA can focus on sending astronauts to asteroids and Mars. Private companies will take over the business of getting space station cargo and crews to orbit.

Once Atlantis soars, it will be another three years - possibly five or more - before astronauts blast off again from US soil.

This will be the 33rd flight for Atlantis and the 135th shuttle mission overall.

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