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."
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 3 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
- 4 The most powerful passports in the world
- 5 Chinese student carries disabled friend to school every day for three years
Nepal earthquake: How you can help victims of the Kathmandu disaster
Nepal earthquake in pictures: Photos show devastation caused by 7.8 magnitude earthquake
Royal baby: Live updates as superbug closes ward at St Mary's Hospital in London where Duchess of Cambridge is due to give birth
Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
General Election 2015: The photo of a tree that proves the Tories have an image problem
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove
£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...
£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...
£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...
£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...