We have lift-off: final shuttle launch holds millions spellbound

The Atlantis shuttle blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre yesterday thrilling spectators who had filled beaches and nearby parks to witness the last launch in the 30-year-old programme.

In a display of power just as humbling today as it was when Columbia, the first in the fleet, began the shuttle era in 1981, the Atlantis made proudly for the heavens from Pad 39A for a final voyage, due to last 12 days. The roar of the rockets was powerful enough to make observers shake some three miles away.

The millions around the world who watched on television shared in the awe and sadness of a sight never to be seen again. A shuttle launch is still a spellbinding spectacle, even if faint dread infected the wonder after the break-up of the Challenger, 73 seconds after take-off in 1986. The Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2005. Fourteen astronauts lost their lives in those accidents.

Storms had threatened to disrupt the 135th shuttle mission with a crew of four led by Commander Chris Ferguson. The countdown was briefly stopped at 31 seconds but was restarted after a gantry retraction was confirmed. While Mother Nature relented, a mostly overcast sky curtailed viewing for most of the million-odd onlookers who were quickly left gaping only at a dirty pillar of smoke spearing the clouds.

If emotions at Nasa were heavy, one former astronaut, Charles Hobaugh, insisted that, for the crew, this mission would be little different from those that came before it. "When you fly, the real pressure is knowing all the work that everyone else has done to make sure you are ready go to," he said. "Whether you are the first one, the middle one or the last one, it's pretty much the same."

But Colonel Hobaugh, a member of a pantheon of space heroes with what they used to call the "right stuff", allowed himself to recall those moments when the countdown ends and the ship finally slips its moorings.

"When the boosters ignite it pretty much leaps off the pad. It's hard to put in words what it feels like. It's a little bit like a bull coming out of its pen," he offered with a wistful smile.

Terry Virts, another veteran flier attending the launch, put it differently: "It feels like the sky's ripping there is so much force."

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