Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off

Space shuttle Atlantis leaves on final mission

Space shuttle Atlantis launched successfully as it left Earth on the final flight of the U.S. space shuttle programme.

Around one million onlookers gathered around the Kennedy Space Center in central Florida for a glimpse of the iconic ship that has defined the U.S. space program for the last 30 years.

Cloudy skies and nearby rain threatened to delay the launch on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station, but after a three minute delay from a last-minute technical glitch the shuttle lifted off at 11.29 a.m. EDT. 

The ship's cargo of food and equipment is intended to bridge the gap until newly hired commercial freighters are ready to fly supply runs to the International Space Station.

The shuttle and its four-member veteran crew are scheduled to arrive at the station, a recently completed orbital research outpost, by the end of the weekend.

NASA is ending the shuttle program due to high operating costs and instead Russia will fly U.S. astronauts to the station, at a cost of more than $50 million a seat, until commercial firms are ready to take over the work.

The U.S. space agency also plans to develop spaceships that can travel beyond the space station's 220-mile orbit where the shuttles cannot go.

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