Space shuttle Atlantis thunders off of Launch Complex 39A - and into the history books. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. – The final mission of the space shuttle program began at 11:26 a.m. EDT under mostly cloudy skies and with an estimated 1 million people watching from locations nearby. Weather predictions were dire, with there being a 70 percent chance that weather would prevent the historic launch from taking place. 

With about an hour left in the count the weather condition essentially inverted with a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions that cleared the way for the beginning of the mission. 

Veteran aerospace photographer Alan Walters took this shot as he made the rounds between the NASA press site and other areas at Kennedy Space Center. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

A last minute technical concern crept in with just 31 seconds remaining on the clock. Controllers had not received confirmation that the Gaseous Oxygen Vent Arm had retracted and locked. The concern was that during the violence of launch the arm could strike the ascending spacecraft. When confirmation was given that all was secure a quick “go” was given and the countdown resumed. With that final bit of drama resolved, Commander Chris Ferguson had one comment as he and his crew readied themselves for launch. 

“Light this fire one more time,” Ferguson said, “and witness this great nation at its best!” 

Atlantis' Commander for STS-135, Chris Ferguson, discusses what it is like landing the shuttle during TCDT training. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Ferguson leads the crew of four that also includes Pilot Douglas Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. The mission is scheduled to last 12 days and will deliver a year’s worth of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Atlantis is ferrying supplies that are meant to keep the ISS well-stocked when the final wheel stop occurs. 

The pilot that rode the first space shuttle mission to orbit some thirty years ago, Robert Crippen, was on hand for this historic occasion. He expressed his feelings as to what he thought the legacy of the space shuttle would be. 

The pilot of the first shuttle flight ever, STS-1, spoke about his experiences and his views on what the shuttle legacy will be shortly before the launch on Friday. Photo Credit: Marcus Kilman

“I’m a fan of country-western music and Brooks and Dunn have a song that I think will sum up how people will view the shuttles after they are retired,” Crippen said. “That song is – You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.”

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  • Borecrawler

    I have mixed emotions about the last shuttle flight-I have been involved on the Space Shuttle program since 1989, and every launch I watch evokes in me a sense of pride in what we have built (along with a strong hope everything goes smoothly). I am going to miss the launches tremendously-the countdown, the “sparklers igniting prior to main engine startup, the vectoring of the RSRM nozzles, the “go for launch” messages-throttle up, etc (the list could go on forever). I would feel much better about the end of the program if we had a strong direction from NASA and the Obama Administration. Many of us are fighting for our jobs and growing very weary of the long wait to find out if we will be a part of NASA’s future plans. The stress NASA is creating both for their own employees and their contractors (and hopeful future contractors) is deplorable and unacceptable.