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The Florida’s Space Coast held a historic event on the morning of July 8. By 11:29 a.m., Atlantis was launched from the Kennedy Space Center as the last mission of the space shuttle program, 30 years and three months after the very first shuttle flight in 1981.
About a million people turned out to watch history unfold before their eyes. Some traveled from different states and even countries as far as Australia to attend to this event. However, the world’s attention was fixed more on what Atlantis’ last mission means than on what it will accomplish in orbit. Their attention was mainly focused on seeing and experiencing the shuttle launch, taking into account that this was the last opportunity ever to see a space shuttle launch.
Like the saying “the early bird catches the worm,” people started arriving to Florida´s Space Coast as early as Wednesday night. They wanted to capture the best pictures so they set up camps in the finest spots. People went as far as sitting as roof tops, including pharmacies, mini vans, even on top of gas stations.
Others just walked in the day of the launch: some with chairs, some with binoculars or others with just phone cameras. The area surrounding the Kennedy Space Center´s was crowded, long lines of cars parking along the motorways, and of course people trying to take advantage of this perfect “marketing situation.” Spontaneously random people started selling pizza, water for one dollar, Atlantis´s souvenirs, and charging for the closest parking lots.
There were some minor complications before the launch. The forecasted 70 percent chance of raining threatened to approach the launch pad. With 31 seconds left, the countdown clock suddenly stopped. NASA said there was a slight delay while retraction of the Gaseous Oxygen Vent Arm, or “Beanie Cap,” was verified. Despite all of this, everything went as planned and the four astronauts rode Atlantis into orbit on mission STS-135 in perfect conditions.
During the launch you could feel the emotion in the air at the Space Coast Center. People cried, people shouted “U-S-A, U-S-A”, and it was clear that they were proud of their nation. In a matter of seconds the shuttle disappeared among the clouds making a breathtaking sound on its way to space. As the shuttle continued its journey upward, the crowd began to pack up their belongings, with the feeling of had taken part in a historical moment.
Atlantis was the fourth space shuttle orbiter to join NASA’s fleet. NASA is not planning on launching any future shuttle to the space station or to anywhere at all. NASA officials said that this development shouldn’t be seen as the end of an era. Rather, it’s a transition to something new and exciting, they added.
“Some say that this final shuttle mission will mark the end of America’s 50 years of dominance in human spaceflight,” NASA chief Charlie Bolden said in a video released soon after the launch. “I want to make clear that American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half-century, because we laid the foundation for success.”
Shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, pilot oug Hurley and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus are expected to arrive at the orbiting space station on Sunday morning.
The main mission of the Atlantis, during the 12 days journey, will be dropping off the Raffaello Multipurpose Logistics Module to deliver supplies, logistics and spare parts to the International Space Station. Atlantis is also delivering several different science experiments, one of which (the Robotic Refueling Mission) is an attempt to demonstrate a way to refuel satellites According to NASA, Atlantis is also carrying two iPhone 4 smartphones loaded with apps to help astronauts perform experiments in space; the first time iPhones have ever gone to space.
After this last journey all of the space shuttles will be retired to museums around the country for educational purposes. Until then, weather permitting, Atlantis will return to Kennedy Space Center, July 20, where it will end up on permanent display.
Additional images by Lydia Cerrada