VIDEO: Final Space Shuttle Mission Blasts Off

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The space shuttle Atlantis soared into the heavens and the history books Friday (July 8), kicking off the last-ever mission of NASA’s storied shuttle program.

Despite a bleak forecast of thunderstorms and clouds, the shuttle beat the weather in a stunning midday launch, sailing into the sky on one final voyage. The countdown toward liftoff took a dramatic pause at T minus 31 seconds while ground crews verified that a vent arm at the top of the shuttle was fully retracted. NASA was quickly able to push on toward liftoff.

Atlantis blasted off just after 11:26 a.m. EDT (1526 GMT) from Launch Pad 39A here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, thrilling huge throngs of spectators who had descended on Florida’s Space Coast to see the swan song of an American icon. NASA estimated that between 750,000 and 1 million people turned out to watch history unfold before their eyes.

“On behalf of the greatest team in the world, good luck to you and your crew on the final flight of this true American icon,” shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach told the astronauts just before launch. “And so for the final time, Fergie, Doug, Sandy and Rex, good luck, Godspeed and have a little fun up there.”

“Thanks to you and your team, Mike. We’re not ending the journey today, we’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end,” Atlantis’ commander Chris Ferguson replied. “Let’s light this shuttle one more time Mike and witness this nation at its best. The crew of Atlantis is ready to launch.”

After 135 launches over 30 years, the space shuttle will never streak into the sky again.

Atlantis and its four-astronaut crew are headed for a rendezvous with the International Space Station. The main goal of the shuttle’s 12-day flight — Atlantis’ 33rd mission after nearly 26 years of flying — is to deliver a year’s worth of supplies and spare parts to the orbiting lab.

But the world’s attention is fixed more on what Atlantis’ last mission means than on what it will accomplish in orbit.

“For an entire generation who grew up with the space shuttle, this is a moment that won’t be appreciated for some time to come,” said space history expert Robert Pearlman, editor of collectSPACE.com and a SPACE.com contributor. “People have taken it for granted; I don’t think its absence is going to be immediately felt.”

READ MORE: SPACE.COM