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Atlantis makes final liftoff as Floridians say goodbye to the space shuttle

CAPE CANAVERAL

The final roar of the space shuttle echoed across Florida on Friday as hundreds of thousands of people watched Atlantis rocket into orbit and into history.

But this roar was more than the rap-rap-rap of thundering rockets that reverberated for miles up and down a region that proudly calls itself the Space Coast.

It also was a rumble of cheers, claps and cries from the crowds who came to see one last launch of the only manned spacecraft a generation of Americans has ever known.

It was a poignant moment for space lovers, for thousands of space workers who are being laid off and for those who are not. NASA launch director Michael Leinbach called it "the final flight of a true American icon."

And it also was a disquieting moment of transition for the American space program because many still wonder exactly what NASA will do next.

The first sounds of the launch at 11:29 a.m. Friday came not from rocket engines, but from crowds along the causeways, bridges and parks near the coast. The onlookers, including people from the Tampa Bay area and far-away states such as Montana and New Hampshire, joined in the countdown: "Ten, nine, eight…"

Then, silence. And then a roar of applause from a cloudy causeway leading to Merritt Island, where viewers got the first glimpse of Atlantis' fiery tail.

And behind them: "Look! Look!" as others spotted it, and Whooooo-hooo! Whoo-hoo! Whoooooooo! in long and short bursts.

"Yayyy!" 10-year-old Nicholas Lacour shouted as he stood on his parents' cooler, lifting his baseball cap into the air.

It was only then that the waves of sound finally rolled in from the shuttle itself, sounding like ripping fabric or thunder that doesn't stop, as Kristie and Matthew Carter of Atlanta described it.

By then the shuttle had streaked into the sky atop a shimmering orange-and-white blaze, climbing toward a ceiling of clouds. In less than a minute, Atlantis disappeared into the cloud layer, almost like the closing curtain for a spectacular show. The audience clapped again.

"It was fantastic," said Robert McCants, 46, who watched countless launches on TV but drove from Raleigh, N.C., with his wife, Angela, to see this one in person, his first. "It was our dream."

Angela McCants, 47, thought the best part was the delayed roar, which thundered forth about a minute after takeoff. She hadn't expected that. "Incredible," she said, shaking her head. "Incredible."

• • •

Shuttles began launching from Cape Canaveral 30 years ago, in 1981, in a program that followed up the successful American moon missions with a dramatically different rocket that was designed to make frequent, inexpensive and safe trips to space.

Even its ardent supporters concede that the shuttle fell somewhat short of that optimism. It launched 135 times in three decades, and twice suffered tragedy with the Challenger and Columbia accidents, each of which killed seven astronauts. Expert reviews slammed NASA both times for failing to take steps that could have prevented the accidents.

But the shuttles, sometimes called the most complicated machines ever built, have some major accomplishments. They were instrumental in building the International Space Station, which has been continuously inhabited by humans for more than a decade, and in deploying and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, which led to revolutionary new theories about the universe.

President George W. Bush decided to kill the space shuttle program and replace it with a new rocket system that would take astronauts back to the moon and eventually on to Mars. President Barack Obama then scuttled major parts of the Bush program, leading critics to say the United States was abandoning its human space program.

But NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former shuttle astronaut, and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver denied this week that NASA is backing off from space travel.

Both pointed out that American astronauts will continue to work aboard the space station. They didn't explicitly mention that in the short term, astronauts will have to get there via Russian Soyuz rockets.

NASA also has issued contracts designed to boost commercial space companies that will send American astronauts into orbit within a few years.

As for NASA itself, it is developing a rocket informally dubbed the "heavy lifter," and a new space capsule that would take astronauts far farther than humans have ever gone — on a mission to an asteroid, perhaps, or eventually on to Mars.

"All this talk about NASA adrift, we don't have a plan — we do have a plan," said former astronaut Robert Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center. "We are making progress."

• • •

For the engineers and NASA officials who wanted this final launch to go flawlessly, there were some tense moments.

First there was the rainy weather Thursday, punctuated by a lightning strike near the launch pad. Even Friday morning, chances of good weather were set at 30 percent.

The skies cleared later in the morning and the countdown continued, but NASA officials had to make a judgment call that shows the delicate balance of risk and study that even now, after three decades of flying, the space shuttle requires.

Despite improving weather, the forecast still called for rain near the shuttle landing strip. This would be a problem only if Atlantis needed to abort the launch and return to Kennedy Space Center — an emergency landing that had never been necessary. Rain could slow a gliding shuttle, possibly preventing it from reaching the landing strip.

But launch integration manager Michael Moses said engineers concluded the rain would not be enough to prevent a shuttle landing. So they pressed ahead, even though it required them to waive normal rules.

The countdown continued — all the way to T-minus 31 seconds when a new problem cropped up. The clock stopped, promoting groans from more than a thousand journalists and others thronged around the space center press site.

Engineering data indicated that a piece of equipment had not fully retracted from the shuttle. But a check of a video screen confirmed that in fact, it had.

The countdown clock clicked to 30, and 29, and eventually down to zero.

Some of the space shuttle managers, who sometimes joke that they are more comfortable talking about technical matters than emotional ones, had a decidedly wistful, but also proud tone after the launch.

In the Launch Control Center, Leinbach said, everyone shook hands, took pictures and "it seemed like we didn't want to leave, like the end of a party where you just want to hang around a little bit longer."

"I choke up at every launch," Moses said. "This one I choked up before launch."

Atlantis is now en route to the space station on a resupply mission. After 12 days, it is scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center. There it will stay permanently, as a museum piece, so schoolchildren can come to learn about the days when space shuttles launched from Florida.

Atlantis makes final liftoff as Floridians say goodbye to the space shuttle 07/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2011 1:08am]

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