Atlantis lifted off Friday at 11:26 A.M. Eastern time after a last moment hold at 34 seconds on its 33rd and final mission—both for it and NASA's 30-year-old manned space shuttle program, putting on hiatus the era of human access to low Earth orbit on board U.S. spacecraft. The launch and orbital insertion was flawless.

This flight, tagged STS 135, the 135th of the program, carries a crew of four shuttle veterans, Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, along with mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus.

During Atlantis's 12-day mission the crew will deliver the Italian Space Agency's reusable Raffaello Multipurpose Logistics Module loaded with around 7,500 kilograms of science experiments, supplies, logistics and spare parts to the International Space Station. It will also carry an experimental package to determine if existing satellites can be refueled robotically is feasible. The crew will also return with a failed ammonia pump module after it is retrieved from the station during a spacewalk by Expedition 28 astronauts Mike Fossum and Ron Garan. NASA Engineers plan to analyze its failure to improve future designs. Another important job: along with 2,350 kilograms of trash, broken equipment and dirty laundry in Raffaello.


STORMY WEATHER: Atlantis, buffeted by downpours and nearby lightning strikes, stands ready on Launch Pad 39-A the day before the planned launch. Credit: Michael J. Battaglia

—11:10 A.M.; T–9 minutes and holding

The countdown clock is about to resume in a few minutes after the last built-in hold at T–9 minutes. All spacecraft systems, the crew and maybe even the weather, remains go. The crowds are gathering outside in front of the countdown clock and near the press complex. I’ll be heading there shortly. Here’s hoping they “light this candle,” as Alan Shepard would say. Judging from everything I’ve seen in the last few days, I’m confident the visceral aspects of watching a launch will be worth the four-hour traffic jam, not to mention having only three hours of sleep. I’m sure my now-drained thermos of coffee and adrenaline rush will keep me alert.

—9:30 A.M.; T–1 hour, 51 minutes and counting

“Everything is still pressing on,” according to NASA. The liquid fuel tank is topped off, the crew is on board and ready for the big ride. Atlantis looks ready, too, as mission engineers go through their final checklists, tests and procedures, and find everything is ready for liftoff.

Then there is the weather. From here on the ground it looks promising, but the last report shows a band of thunderstorms moving in. A situation NASA calls “dynamic.”

—4:14 A.M. Eastern time; T–7 hours and counting.

The space shuttle Atlantis is go for launch at 11:26 A.M. Eastern Time, although storms continue to threaten the liftoff with a 70 percent chance of unfavorable conditions. Fueling of Atlantis’s external fuel tank with more than 1.9 million liters of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen began at Launch Pad 39-A at 2:01 A.M. EDT


Watch this blog for further updates as they become available.