The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis blasted off Friday on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS), the 135th and final flight of the 30-year-old space shuttle program.

The space agency NASA said as many as 1 million people were gathered in and around the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the historic liftoff.  Launch control called the space mission "a sentimental journey."

US Space shuttle fan sports her "shuttle socks" a
US Space shuttle fan sports her "shuttle socks" ahead of Atlantis launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, July 8, 2011

The shuttle's four-member crew will deliver supplies, spare parts and science experiments to the International Space Station during its 12-day mission.  

The space shuttles have served as the complex workhorses of the U.S. manned space program for the last 30 years, playing a key role in the building and operation of the International Space Station (ISS) and performing other important missions. The end of the shuttle program leaves the United States without its own manned spacecraft.

The space shuttle Atlantis releases its fuel tank
The space shuttle Atlantis releases its fuel tank for the final time, July 8, 2011

NASA is ending the shuttle program to concentrate resources on deep-space exploration. The agency is working with several commercial U.S. aerospace companies to develop vehicles to replace the shuttles.  Until then, Russia's Soyuz spacecraft will ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the ISS, while Russian, European and Japanese cargo rockets will continue their resupply and waste disposal missions to the station.

There were four astronauts on Atlantis for Friday's launch - Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, Mission Specialist Rex Walheim and Mission Specialist Sandra Magnus. All four have flown on previous shuttle missions.

NASA Documentary on Shuttle Program, video footage of Endeavour ISS docking



  • This is the 33rd flight of Atlantis and the 135th of the shuttle program.

  • 355 individuals have flown 852 times on 135 shuttle missions since the first launch on April 12, 1981.

  • Sixteen countries have been represented on shuttle missions: Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Israel,Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United States.

  • Fourteen people died in two accidents: Challenger on January 28, 1986 and Columbia on February 1, 2003.

  • The five orbiters have flown 864,402,830 kilometers. Atlantis will add more than 6.4 million kilometers to the total.

  • More than 2,000 experiments have been conducted on the shuttles in the fields of Earth, biological and materials sciences and astronomy.

  • The shuttles have docked to two space stations: Between 1994 and 1998, nine missions flew to the Russian Mir. With Atlantis, 37 shuttle missions will have flown to the International Space Station.

  • Shuttles have landed at the Kennedy Space Center 77 times, Edwards Air Force Base in California 54 times and the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico once.

  • The space shuttle, external tank, twin solid rocket boosters, and the three space shuttle main engines contain about 2.5 million moving parts.