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Atlantis blasts off on end-of-era spaceflight
by Staff Writers
Cape Canaveral, Florida (AFP) July 8, 2011

without dreams there is no future

Atlantis blazed a path into history Friday as it rocketed off the launch pad for a final time, marking the last-ever liftoff of the 30-year-old American space shuttle program.

The storied spacecraft is carrying a crew of four US astronauts toward the International Space Station on a 12-day mission to re-stock the orbiting lab, where it is due to dock on Sunday.

The mission marks the end of an era in human spaceflight. The United States will soon have no spacecraft capable of taking astronauts to orbit, leaving Russia's three-seat Soyuz capsule as the sole taxi to the ISS.

"For a final time, good luck and Godspeed," said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, as NASA gave the Atlantis the go-ahead to blast off.

At least 750,000 people descended on Florida to catch a glimpse of history, braving snarled traffic and warnings of stormy weather that had briefly threatened to postpone the mission.

The skies cleared and Atlantis blasted off at 11:29 am (1529 GMT), three minutes later than scheduled after final checks were carried out.

"A little bit of luck never hurts," Leinbach told reporters at a post-launch briefing, referring to the sudden improvement in the weather.

Some tourists who gathered at Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch wiped away tears afterward, overcome by the emotion of witnessing the potent blastoff and feeling it rattle their bones and burn their eyes.

Kevin Dang, 32, said the "rumbling was really, really loud and you could feel the ground shake."

Tourist Pete Riesett, 31, described the event as the "best thing ever," and said he felt no sadness for the fast-approaching end of the shuttle program.

"To be honest, I am actually fine with it," he told AFP. "It is time for it to go and it is time for something better to come in its place."

Once the shuttle retires, astronauts will be limited to catching rides to the ISS aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft at a cost of $51 million per ticket.

Nostalgia, bitterness and sorrow mingled with pride at Kennedy Space Center as thousands of workers watched their cherished spacecraft sail into the skies.

As many as 8,000 people are being laid off with the closure of the shuttle program.

"So many folks are losing their jobs. They do it because it is their passion. We have really, really good people," lamented astronaut Terry Virts.

"The sad part about it is that we won't have an American ability to launch astronauts anymore."

Former president Richard Nixon ordered the shuttle program in the 1970s, and the first shuttle mission was launched in 1981.

In the days leading up to Atlantis's last launch, NASA fended off criticism over the lack of an immediate successor to the shuttle and showed off the design of the Orion space capsule, the basis for a multipurpose crew vehicle that may someday travel to deep space.

"I don't see this is as the end of the golden era," said NASA associate administrator for space operations Bill Gerstenmaier after the launch. "I see it as a transition."

Private companies like SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are competing to become the first to build a next-generation space capsule to take astronauts and cargo to the orbiting research lab.

But those plans are not likely to come to fruition before 2015 at the earliest.

President Barack Obama "honors the shuttle program and the service of everybody who has worked on it over the years," said White House spokesman Jay Carney at a briefing in Washington.

"The president has laid out an ambitious agenda, an ambitious vision for human space flight that will take American astronauts beyond where we've been ever before, with the ultimate goal being a human mission to Mars."

Asked by a reporter when that might be, Carney answered: "Well, I think if we knew that, there wouldn't be the challenge, would it?"

Of the six US space shuttles, the prototype Enterprise never flew in space, Challenger exploded after liftoff in 1986 and Columbia disintegrated on its return to Earth in 2003. Fourteen crew members died in the two disasters.

NASA plans to send the remaining three shuttles in the fleet -- Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis -- to museums across the country to go on permanent display.

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Tourists in tears after 'awesome' shuttle launch
Cape Canaveral (AFP) July 8, 2011 - Cries of joy erupted from hundreds of tourists gathered at Kennedy Space Center on Friday as the space shuttle Atlantis rode a pillar of fire into orbit for the final time.

Some had seen shuttle launches before but never so close, while others were struggling for words and wiping away tears after watching the iconic American shuttle blast off, marking the end of a 30-year space program.

"I'm tearing up!" exclaimed Gabrielle Laine, 48, wiping at her damp eyes after seeing the liftoff from a distance of about three miles (five kilometers), close enough to feel the rocket rattle her bones.

"Awesome is not a word I use very often, but it was absolutely awesome."

Laine was among 150 users of the microblogging service Twitter who won special invitations from the US space agency to attend the launch in person and tweet about their experiences.

As she headed back into the NASA Tweetup tent, Laine recalled how the rumble of the shuttle reminded her of being near the World Trade Center on the day of the 2001 attacks.

"I was at the World Trade Center on 9-11 and that shudder that went through me was very similar," she said.

As many as 750,000 tourists descended on the area around Cape Canaveral to catch a glimpse of the history-making launch, which NASA had warned for days was not likely to go ahead due to stormy weather.

Hotels were filled to capacity in the resort town of Cocoa Beach and cars and vans crowded the roadsides overnight as visitors jockeyed for the best spots.

But in the last moments before launch, the skies suddenly cleared and the once soggy grass grew firmer after a spate of torrential rain.

"Only five minutes before I didn't think it was going to happen," said Maria Rogers, 37.

"I kind of convinced myself not to get excited and then it hit me like a ton of bricks when it did," she said, giggling.

Kevin Dang, 32, said the "rumbling was really, really loud and you could feel the ground shake.

"That was pretty awesome, it was amazing," he said.

Beth Beck, 55, an outreach director with NASA who has seen about 10 launches, posed for pictures with tourists and watched as some walked past in tears.

"It never gets old, especially when you feel it," she said. "I still have goosebumps!"

David Garrett, 76, a retired NASA spokesman, said he felt some twinges of regret at watching the final liftoff a shuttle he has known well for the past three decades.

"I feel sadness. It's a little sad. And it's true that the landing will be the worst because that will be it," he said.

Kennedy Space Center spokesman Allard Beutel, 41, agreed that emotions will be even more powerful when the shuttle returns after its 12-day mission to the International Space Station.

"It will hit really hard on landing, at the very end," he told AFP. "I think I will really start feeling it on landing. It's when you will see a lot of non-dry eyes."

Pete Riesett, 31, described the event as "amazing, best thing ever."

He said he had seen other launches from different spots along central Florida's Space Coast, but this was his first time watching it from Kennedy Space Center.

Asked if he felt any sadness for the end of the shuttle program, which began in 1981, he said no.

"To be honest, I am actually fine with it," he told AFP. "It is time for it to go and it is time for something better to come in its place."

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US astronaut recalls 'roller coaster' of shuttle flight
Cape Canaveral, Florida (AFP) July 8, 2011
Riding a space shuttle is sort of like surging skyward aboard a high-speed, rickety roller coaster and then returning through a pulsing cosmic nightclub, US astronaut Terry Virts says. Asked to describe his most savored moment in space, the Air Force colonel and 11-year NASA veteran was unable to settle on a single high point during his first and only two-week flight aboard a space shuttle l ... read more

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