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Atlantis Blasts Off On Shuttle Program's Final Mission

The space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center Friday, July 8, 2011, in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
John Raoux
The space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center Friday, July 8, 2011, in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Space shuttle Atlantis roared off the launch pad at Florida's Kennedy Space Center this morning, beginning a 12-day mission to the International Space Station that marks the end of NASA's 30-year-old shuttle program.

With hundreds of thousands of people looking on from highways, beaches and balconies along Florida's "Space Coast," and millions more watching on television or the Web, the shuttle and its crew of four lifted off after a morning of uncertainty about whether storms in the area might force a postponement.

In the end, NASA determined that conditions were fine for flying. There was slight mechanical delay right before launch. But now, Atlantis heads off on the shuttle program's " final space odyssey."

We've been following the story this morning and will update this post if there are other important developments. Scroll down and read "up" if you want to see what's been happening today. If you'd like to see NASA-TV's coverage, which includes replays of the launch, click here.

Update at 1:25 p.m. ET. Launch Replay:

Update at 11:55 a.m. ET. "Let's Light This Fire One More Time."

From The Associated Press:

"Before taking flight, Commander Christopher Ferguson saluted all those who contributed over the years to the shuttle program. 'The shuttle is always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through,' he said, addressing NASA launch director Mike Leinbach. 'We're not ending the journey today ... we're completing a chapter of a journey that will never end.' "

Then, said Ferguson, "Let's light this fire one more time, Mike, and witness this great nation at its best."

Update at 11:42 a.m. ET. After "Flawless Launch," Fuel Tanks Separate:

Atlantis is now moving into its orbit after the successful separation of the external fuel tanks.

As for the glitch that caused about a two-minute pause with just 30 seconds to go in the countdown, NASA says it was because engineers needed to confirm that the "gaseous vent arm" had completely retracted from the shuttle. Other than that, NASA says, it was a "flawless launch."

Update at 11:20 a.m. ET. It's A "Go," NASA Says.

Update at 11 a.m. ET. Huge Crowd Might Make It Hard To Launch Saturday:

If Atlantis does not lift off today because of the weather or any other reason, there is a chance it could take off Saturday instead. But on CNN an interesting point was just made: Because of the huge crowds that have come to the area to watch today, it could be difficult for the engineers and others who work at the Space Center to get home — and get the rest they need to then turn around and do it all again tomorrow. That might factor into a decision to try again on Sunday instead.

But as of this moment, NASA says it is still "cautiously optimistic" about a launch today — in about 25 minutes.

Update at 10:30 a.m. ET. A "Go" On The Weather?

From Florida, NPR's Russell Lewis tells us that NASA reports the weather, as of now, is a "go." It's the most positive thing the space agency has said today about the conditions, Russell adds.

Update at 10:26 a.m. ET:It's one hour to the scheduled launch time, and the countdown continues.

Update at 9:40 a.m. ET. Many Slept Outside To Get Prime Viewing Spots:

Spur King from Armarillo, Texas, slept on the roof of a van in Titusville, Fla., as he waited earlier today for, he hopes, the launch of Atlantis.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Getty Images
Spur King from Armarillo, Texas, slept on the roof of a van in Titusville, Fla., as he waited earlier today for, he hopes, the launch of Atlantis.

As NPR's Greg Allen reports for our Newscast Desk, "this part of Florida is called the Space Coast," and people there are naturally excited about this last launch of a shuttle. "On just about any road with a clear view of Cape Canaveral," he says, "people have been gathering since yesterday." Some slept in or on their cars.

"If the launch is postponed," Greg adds, most of the people he spoke with say they'll be back to watch on Saturday — or Sunday if there's yet another delay.

Update at 9:25 a.m. ET. Hatch Is Closed:

Preparations continue, and NASA's webcast shows that engineers have closed the shuttle's hatch.

Meanwhile, The Orlando Sentinel's The Write Stuff blog reports that among the hundreds of thousands of spectators today are these VIPs: Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Margaritavillesinger Jimmy Buffett.

Update at 8:25 a.m. ET. Sun!

Over at the #NASATweetup on Twitter, Amber Gohn says there's "Sun! Go Atlantis, go! Fingers crossed!" And she's posted a photo of the sun shining through clouds over the Space Center. The Space Center has posted another view of the sun here.

Update at 8:15 a.m. ET. Crowd Is Building: On Florida Today's live-blog, readers are reporting that it's "like rush hour" on highways around the Space Center as people descend on the area to see the historic launch. The newspaper's James Dean says that projections on the size of the crowd that will gather in the area have ranged from 500,000 to 1 million.

Update at 8 a.m. ET: NASA's official blog for the mission is here. If you're looking for bios of the four-member crew, and links to their Twitter pages, click here.

From our original post:

As Florida Today puts it, "scads of visitors to the Space Coast have traveled from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away to see the historic final launch." And the newspaper writes that "many of the visitors have their own special reasons for being here."

The mission is getting plenty of attention on the Web as well, including from the folks at the Space Center who are participating in the #NASATweetup on Twitter.

There are also, NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reported on Morning Edition, many more reporters on hand than there were at other launches in recent years.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.