It will be at least three years - possibly five or more - before astronauts launch again from U.S. soil, and so this final journey of the shuttle era packed in crowds and roused emotions on a scale not seen since the Apollo moon shots.
After days of gloomy forecasts full of rain and heavy cloud cover, the spaceship lifted off at 11:29 a.m. - just 2½ minutes late - thundering away on the 135th shuttle mission 30 years and three months after the very first flight. The four experienced space fliers rode Atlantis from the same pad used more than a generation ago by the Apollo astronauts.
The shuttle was visible for 42 seconds before disappearing into the clouds.
NASA waived its own weather rules to allow the liftoff to go forward. In the end, though, the countdown was delayed not by the weather but by the need to verify that the launch pad support equipment was retracted all the way.
The crew will deliver a year's worth of critical supplies to the International Space Station and return with as much trash as possible. Atlantis is scheduled to come home on June 20 after 12 days in orbit.
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."
He added: "Let's light this fire one more time, Mike, and witness this great nation at its best."
It wasn't clear until the final moments of the countdown that the launch would come off. That was fitting in a way, since Florida's famously stormy weather delayed numerous shuttle missions almost from the start of the program and was a major reason spaceflight never became routine, as NASA had hoped for.
Hundreds of thousands of spectators jammed Cape Canaveral and surrounding towns for the emotional farewell. Kennedy Space Center itself was packed with shuttle workers, astronauts and 45,000 invited guests, the maximum allowed.
NASA's original shuttle pilot, Robert Crippen, now 73, was among the VIPs. He flew Columbia, along with Apollo 16 moonwalker John Young, on the inaugural test flight in 1981.
Other notables on the guest list: a dozen members of Congress, Cabinet members, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, four Kennedy family members, Jimmy Buffett, Gloria Estefan and two former NASA chiefs.
The space shuttle was conceived even as the moon landings were under way, deemed essential for building a permanent space station. NASA brashly promised 50 flights a year - in other words, routine trips into space - and affordable service.
But the program suffered two tragic accidents that killed 14 astronauts and destroyed two shuttles, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. NASA never managed more than nine flights in a single year. And the total tab was $196 billion, or $1.45 billion a flight.
Yet there have been some indisputable payoffs: The International Space Station would not exist if it were not for the shuttles, and the Hubble Space Telescope, thanks to repeated tuneups by astronauts, would be a blurry eye in the sky instead of the world's finest cosmic photographer.
The station is essentially completed, and thus the shuttle's original purpose accomplished. NASA says it is sacrificing the shuttles because there is not enough money to keep the expensive fleet going if the space agency is to aim for asteroids and Mars.
Thousands of shuttle workers will be laid off within days of Atlantis' return, on top of the thousands who already have lost their jobs. And the three remaining shuttles will become museum pieces.
This day of reckoning has been coming since 2004, a year after the Columbia tragedy, when President George W. Bush announced the retirement of the shuttle and put NASA on a course back to the moon. President Barack Obama canceled the back-to-the-moon program in favor of trips to an asteroid and Mars.
But NASA has yet to work out the details of how it intends to get there, and has not even settled on a spacecraft design.
The space shuttle demonstrates America's leadership in space, and "for us to abandon that in favor of nothing is a mistake of strategic proportions," lamented former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who led the agency from 2005 to 2008.
After Atlantis' lights-out, 33rd flight, private rocket companies will take over the job of hauling supplies and astronauts to the space station. The first supply run is targeted for later this year, while the first trip with astronauts is projected to be years away.
Until those flights are up and running, American astronauts will be hitching rides to and from the space station via Russian Soyuz capsules, at more than $50 million per trip.
Russia will supply the rescue vessels for Ferguson and his crew if Atlantis ends up severely damaged in flight. But the Russian spaceships can carry only three people, including two crew members, and any rescue would require a series of back-and-forth trips. That is why only four astronauts are flying Atlantis, the smallest crew in decades.
That reliance on Russia - with no other backup - has many space veterans worried. A contingent of old-time flight directors and astronauts, Crippen included, is seeking a last-ditch reprieve for the space shuttle, at least until something is ready to take its place.
Crippen acknowledged it is futile at this point.
"I'm afraid that ship has sailed," he said on the eve of the launch. But noting the improvements that had been made in the shuttles over the past three decades, he said: "Those vehicles, in my opinion, could fly for another 30 years and could be flown safely."
This last journey by Atlantis may be stretched to 13 days if enough power can be conserved. Weather permitting, Atlantis will return to Kennedy, where it will be put on public display.
Discovery and Endeavour already are retired and being prepped for museums across the country.
Four astronauts are taking space shuttle Atlantis for one last spin - the very last one of the 30-year space shuttle era.
It's the smallest crew since the early shuttle flights - usually there are six or seven. The size was necessitated by the need to use Russian Soyuz capsules in case commander Christopher Ferguson and his crew get stranded aboard the International Space Station.
With the other two shuttles already retired, there isn't another one left to rescue the Atlantis astronauts if their ship were severely damaged in flight.
Joining Ferguson on the 12-day flight are co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus, experienced space fliers all.
"We all want to be able to remember this," Ferguson said. "We want to be able to pass to our children and our children's children that we were fortunate enough to be a part of the space shuttle."
A brief look at the crew:
With only four on board, commander Christopher Ferguson likes to point out that this is a retro astronaut crew. NASA hasn't had such a small space shuttle crew since the sixth flight in 1983.
That explains the black suits that the astronauts wore for their formal preflight news conference. Ferguson couldn't resist, especially given his co-pilot's Project Mercury-throwback flattop cut. (Pilot Douglas Hurley's a Marine.)
"No solemnity with this event," Ferguson insisted. "It's a celebration. Thirty years."
He scoffs at those who said they shunned NASA's last shuttle launch because they perceived it as a funeral. But he acknowledges it's like mourning a friend.
"We personify the shuttle. It's a living, breathing entity to a lot of us. They have their quirks," he said.
"You hate to let your first car go because it meant so much to you, and it hurts to let the space shuttle go."
Ferguson, 49, grew up in Philadelphia, delivering the daily Inquirer as a boy. He joined the Navy and became a fighter pilot, attending the famed Topgun school. From there, it was on to test pilot training.
NASA chose him as an astronaut in 1998. This is his third space shuttle flight. The retired Navy captain wants to stick around NASA to help with the next step in human exploration, whatever it may be.
"Space business is in my blood," he said. He would love to see astronauts go to Mars, "the Holy Grail in the near term."
Wife Sandra - "a closet space geek," according to her husband - is a full-time mom to their three teenage children.
Pilot Douglas Hurley says there have been a series of "lasts" in the nine months of training leading up to this final flight of the space shuttle program.
"It's a little bit sobering to really think that, yeah, we're done flying shuttles after July," he said.
Hurley, 44, a colonel in the Marines and former fighter pilot, is making his second spaceflight since becoming an astronaut in 2000.
He's married to astronaut Karen Nyberg, who is training for a six-month mission at the International Space Station in another two years. Their son is 17 months old.
Hurley said he's considering a space station stint himself further down the road.
In the off chance that Atlantis was damaged seriously at launch, Hurley would be the one to camp out at the orbiting outpost for a year, awaiting a ride home in a Russian capsule. He was chosen to be last because of his robotic arm-operating and spacewalking skills.
Once back on Earth, Hurley wants to help with the new rocketships that will replace the shuttles, either the commercial variety intended to fly to orbit or NASA's proposed heavy launchers that could lift crews and cargo to an asteroid or Mars.
"People talk about this period of transition, but there's a lot of potential with where we're going," he said.
Hurley calls Apalachin, N.Y., home. He enjoys hunting and cycling, and is wild about NASCAR. His cousin is married to NASCAR crew chief Greg Zipadelli.
Flight engineer Rex Walheim knows Atlantis inside and out.
Every time he rockets into space - this is the third - it's on Atlantis.
He enjoys taking a whiff when he climbs aboard. "It smells like Atlantis ... it feels good to be home."
An experienced spacewalker, Walheim will direct the single spacewalk planned for this mission, from inside the International Space Station. The two Americans living at the outpost will be the ones to venture out, in a departure from past shuttle visits.
Walheim, 48, a retired Air Force colonel, got his start inside Mission Control. He worked as a flight controller and operations engineer at Johnson Space Center in the late 1980s, following the Challenger launch disaster.
By the early 1990s, Walheim was studying flight engineering at the Air Force test pilot school and a few years later, teaching there. NASA picked him as an astronaut in 1996. It seemed a miracle to this San Carlos, Calif.-bred son of a B-17, World War II-era pilot. He'd been rejected as a military pilot because of a heart murmur, only to learn years later he was fine.
"I'm a window seat kind of guy. I love riding in a window seat in an airline to this day," Walheim said. "Boy, the best window seat in the world is the space shuttle window."
His graphic artist wife Margie designed the mission patch, which features the Greek letter omega, symbolic of finality.
They have two sons, ages 13 and 14.
"I really want to be upbeat and I want it to be a celebration instead of sad," he said of the shuttle's closing chapter. "The way I like to look at it is that the legacy of the space shuttle lives on. So instead of just looking at the shuttle stopping, you look at what it's done."
Astronaut Sandra Magnus hates whenever someone points out she's the last woman to fly on the space shuttle.
"It's kind of a soft, little milestone, right? The last woman on the space shuttle," she said. "But I'm not the last woman to fly in space, ever."
Magnus, 46, a scientist from Belleville, Ill. is one of eight women who have lived on the International Space Station, with more to come even as the shuttle program ends. Her 4½-month mission straddled 2008 and 2009.
This is her third spaceflight.
She's the transfer czar, as her crewmates call her, responsible for making sure all the supplies carried up aboard Atlantis get onto the space station, and all the junk ends up on Atlantis for the trip home. She'll rely on a color-coded system for the hundreds of items that need to be moved: yellow for sun and staying aloft, green for Earth and coming home, blue for food.
She also will also be one of the prime robot arm operators.
Magnus said she has no idea whether she'll sign on for another long-term space station mission or whether she'll even stay with NASA after Atlantis returns in two weeks.
"I've always wanted to be an astronaut. I grew up and now I'm an astronaut. And so now that I'm an astronaut, the whole idea of what I want to do when I grow up comes back full circle. It's like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't think about that now,' " she said with a laugh.
She became an astronaut in 1996 after working for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Co. as an engineer specializing in radar and stealth aircraft systems.
She loves to cook and created her own specialties during her space station tenure, using available foods. Her male crewmates devoured her Christmas cookies and Super Bowl salsa.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)