Atlantis Lifts Off on Final Shuttle Mission

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER (CNN) -- The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off Friday morning, marking the beginning of its final journey into space and the last blast-off of NASA's 30-year shuttle program.

The very last launch for a space shuttle occurred at 11:26 a.m. ET.

Thousands of people, including some who came to Kennedy Space Center three decades ago for the very first launch, gathered to watch. Almost a million people were expected to be on hand to witness the historic event.

One onlooker interviewed by CNN flew in with a friend Thursday from New York. Unable to find a hotel, the men went to a Walmart and picked up a tent, air mattresses and some tortilla chips and camped out on a nearby spit of land to wait for the launch. Seeing the shuttle blast off will let them check an item off their things-to-do-before-you-die bucket list.

"It's really the last opportunity to see something that's a feat of mankind," the man, who identified himself as Nate, told CNN.

It being summer in Florida, it's still up in the air whether Atlantis will launch Friday.

Violent storms Thursday prompted NASA teams to carry out checks on the shuttle, which NASA said escaped damage from two nearby lightning strikes.

One bolt emanating from a severe thunderstorm struck a water tower 515 feet from the pad; the second struck the beach nearby, the space agency said in a statement.

Showers were on the radar again for Friday, but breaks in the clouds heightened hopes for a Friday launch.

"We have a shot at this today," NASA Launch Director Mike Leinbach said after a weather briefing, according to a tweet from NASA.

The final mission will take the four astronauts, all of them shuttle veterans, into space for 12 days. They will deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

President Richard Nixon commissioned the space shuttle program in 1972, three years after the Apollo program put a man on the moon.

The first shuttle, Columbia, blasted off in April 1981. Since then, space shuttle crews have fixed satellites, performed scientific studies, and ferried materials and people to International Space Station Alpha, a football field-sized construction project in orbit.

Retired astronaut Bob Crippen flew on that first mission.

"I am sad," he said of the shuttles' retirement. "I think it's a great vehicle. Probably will not see anything like it in my lifetime."

In 134 missions, the five space shuttles have ferried 355 astronauts half a billion miles in space, turning heroic feats into the routine.

"It's an amazing vehicle, and its legacy will live on," Atlantis' final commander, Chris Ferguson, recently told CNN.

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