Despite a bleak forecast of thunderstorms and clouds, the shuttle beat the weather in a stunning midday launch, sailing into the sky on one final voyage. The coutndown toward liftoff took a dramatic pause at T minus 31 seconds while ground crews verified that a vent arm at the top of the shuttle was fully retracted. NASA was quickly able to push on toward liftoff.
Atlantis blasted off at 11:29 am EDT (1529 GMT) from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, thrilling huge throngs of spectators who had descended on Florida’s Space Coast to see the swan song of an American icon. An estimated 750,000 to 1 million people watched the history unfold before their eyes.