KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA, July 8, 2011 — -- Space shuttle Atlantis, delayed almost to the last second by a computer glitch, left the launch pad here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, punched a hole in the clouds, and disappeared into the history books.
After 135 flights in 30 years, it was the last space shuttle launch ever. And it was a spectacular sight to the estimated one million people who crowded around the space center to see it happen. The shuttle rose on a streak of flame, almost blinding to see, going higher and higher and higher. Within a minute it passed through a low layer of clouds above it and was gone, leaving a pillar of steam that slowly dissipated in Florida's muggy air.
"We got to witness something really, really special and something amazing," said William H. Gerstenmaier, head of NASA's space operations.
But it may be the last time America launches its own astronauts for many years. At the Kennedy Space Center, throngs of people applauded, cheered -- and in some cases wept. This part of Florida has lived in large part for space shuttle launches, and there is not a clear plan for what comes next.
Atlantis' launch -- a dramatic spectacle in any event -- became a nail-biter as well. Controllers had less than five minutes in which to get it off the pad while its target, the International Space Station, was orbiting overhead. Clouds, which had loomed over the area all morning, parted just in time, and the countdown clock went into its final moments. But with just 31 seconds to go before liftoff, it suddenly stopped.
The problem turned out to be small: a sensor had failed to confirm that an access arm on the shuttle's gantry had safely retracted. Controllers solved the problem by going relatively low-tech: they looked at the arm through a television camera on the launch pad. But three tense minutes passed while engineers satisfied themselves there was no actual danger. If the wait had been longer, it would have forced an expensive two-day launch delay.
"I think we launched with 58 seconds left," said Mike Leinbach, the launch director. "That's an eternity as far as I'm concerned."
Atlantis is now on its way to a final rendezvous with the space station, scheduled for midday Sunday. Its mission sounds fairly mundane: it is carrying a year's worth of preserved food, clothing, spare parts and other supplies for the station's six crew members. It is scheduled to land on July 20 at 7:06 a.m., ET, though NASA will give the astronauts an extra day if they can conserve enough fuel and power.
And then it will become a museum piece; a new building is planned for it at the visitors' center here.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden released a bittersweet statement moments after Atlantis reached orbit:
"With today's final launch of the space shuttle we turn the page on a remarkable period in America's history in space, while beginning the next chapter in our nation's extraordinary story of exploration," Bolden said. "Tomorrow's destinations will inspire new generations of explorers, and the shuttle pioneers have made the next chapter of human spaceflight possible."
But the harsh reality is that years will probably pass before America sets off for those those future destinations. The Obama administration has proposed that NASA build a new, more powerful booster to take astronauts into deep space, perhaps to a passing asteroid and ultimately on the Mars.
The booster is several years from completion, though, and in the meantime, NASA says the number of space workers here in Florida, which peaked at 15,000 people, will shrink to 8,200. Private companies have been invited to take over the job of ferrying astronauts to the space station, but none has yet put astronauts in orbit.
Bob Cabana, a former astronaut who now heads the Kennedy Space Center, tried to be encouraging today.
"Change is difficult," he said, "but you can't do something else, you can't do something better, without it."