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Atlantis, final NASA shuttle, lifts off

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- With a cry from its commander to "light this fire one more time," the final space shuttle flight thundered into orbit Friday on a cargo run that closes out three decades of American triumph and tragedy aboard the orbiters.

The rumble of Atlantis rocketing through the clouds also ushered in a period of uncertainty for America's manned space program, which will grow dormant for the near future.

After some last-minute suspense over the weather and a piece of launchpad equipment, the craft and its four astronauts blasted off practically on schedule at 11:29 a.m., pierced a shroud of clouds and settled flawlessly into orbit, seen on the ground by a crowd estimated to be close to 1 million -- the size of the throng that watched Apollo 11 shoot to the moon in 1969.

"Let's light this fire one more time, Mike, and witness this great nation at its best," Atlantis commander Christopher Ferguson told launch director Mike Leinbach before liftoff.

It was the 135th U.S. shuttle flight. The tab for the shuttle program, which began in 1981 with Columbia, was estimated to total $196 billion, or $1.45 billion a flight.

President Barack Obama congratulated the crew and space workers on what he called a "picture-perfect launch."

Atlantis' crew will dock Sunday with the International Space Station, deliver a year's worth of critical supplies -- and bring back the trash. The shuttle is scheduled to land July 20 after 12 days in orbit, though a 13th day is likely.

After Atlantis' return, it will be lights out for the shuttle program. Thousands of workers will be laid off within days. The spaceship will become a museum piece like the two other surviving shuttles, Discovery and Endeavour -- plus the test vehicle Enterprise.

It will be at least three years -- possibly five or more -- before astronauts are launched again from U.S. soil.

Shuttle crews built the International Space Station, repaired satellites and fixed the Hubble Space Telescope's blurry vision, enabling it to show deeper into space than before.

But the program suffered two accidents that killed 14 astronauts and destroyed two shuttles, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

This day of reckoning has been coming since 2004, when President George W. Bush announced retirement of the shuttle and put NASA on a course back to the moon. Obama canceled the moon project in favor of trips to an asteroid by 2025 and then to 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. From now on, private rocket companies will haul supplies and astronauts to the space station. Until they are flying, astronauts will hitch rides via Russian Soyuz capsules.

Some, like former NASA chief Michael Griffin, lament the lull. The shuttle demonstrates America's leadership in space, and "for us to abandon that "in favor of nothing is a mistake of strategic proportions," he said.

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