US space shuttle Atlantis leaves Earth on final flight

Atlantis, on its last mission, is bringing tons of food, equipment to space station; NASA cancels future flights due to high operating costs.

Space shuttle Atlantis NASA_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Space shuttle Atlantis NASA_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
CAPE CANAVERAL - Space shuttle Atlantis rocketed off its seaside launch pad on Friday, rising atop a tower of smoke and flames as it left Earth on the shuttle program's final flight.
About 1 million sightseers witnessed the smooth liftoff from Kennedy Space Center. They lined causeways and beaches around the central Florida site, angling for a last glimpse of the pioneering ship that has defined the US space program for the past 30 years.
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"Good luck to you and your crew on this final flight of this true American icon," shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach radioed to the crew minutes before takeoff.
"Have a little fun up there," he added.
Cloudy skies threatened to delay the 12-day mission to the International Space Station, but conditions cleared in time for blastoff.
However, the countdown was halted 31 seconds before the scheduled 11:26 a.m. local time launch as computers detected a problem with the retraction of equipment used to vent gases from the fuel tank. Engineers quickly verified the equipment was correctly positioned and cleared the ship for launch three minutes later.
The shuttle's cargo of tons of food and equipment is intended to bridge the gap until newly hired commercial freighters are ready to begin deliveries to the space station. The first flights are expected next year.
Atlantis and its four-member veteran crew are scheduled to arrive at the station, a recently completed orbital research outpost, on Sunday.
NASA is ending the shuttle program due to high operating costs.
The new focus of the US human space flight program will be the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that orbits 230 miles above Earth.
NASA will rely on Russia to fly its astronauts to the space station, at a cost of more than $50 million a seat, until commercial firms are ready to take over crew ferry flights.
Among the companies interested in the work is Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which already has a NASA contract to fly cargo to the station.
The company, owned by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, successfully tested its Dragon capsule in orbit last December and hopes to make it all the way to the station during a second test flight later this year.
The other freighter, being developed by Orbital Sciences Corp, has yet to debut.