For the final time, the space shuttle Atlantis has launched into space and thus marking the beginning of the end of the space shuttle era.

Following the current mission, the three space shuttles and a prototype will find their way to museums across the country. The next time astronauts launch from U.S. soil is uncertain. NASA is hoping to get a new program, with private contractors in place, by the end of the decade. Until then, U.S. astronauts will hitch a ride with Russian Soyuz space ships.

The space shuttle launched at approximately 11:26 am and reached orbit 16 minutes later. The four astronauts aboard will carry out a 12 day mission. The astronauts will bring the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module containing supplies and spare parts for the space station. The STS-135 astronauts are: Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. The astronauts have acknowledged how special it is to be on the final space shuttle mission.

The Space Shuttle Program has been amazing, what it's done, all the great accomplishments, and you just don't want to let that momentum down, and so there is a lot of pressure to do your job right and to, and like I say, to finish strong, said Walheim.

The space shuttle era officially kicked off in 1972, when President Nixon announced NASA would develop a reusable space shuttle system. Nearly 10 years later, the first shuttle, Columbia, launched into space as the first space shuttle program mission.

Over its 30 year history, the space shuttle era has been home to and seen some remarkable achievements. It was there for the launching of the Hubble telescope. It was there for the first woman in space as well as the African American. The space shuttle has been there for numerous discoveries.

NASA had thousands in attendance at Cape Canaveral and surrounding towns for the final mission. The agency invited several VIPs including many astronauts who have flown in previous missions. Also in attendance were Congressional and Cabinet members, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Jimmy Buffett and Gloria Estefan.

Weather was supposed to halt the launch but the skies stayed true enough for a successful takeoff. Earlier in the week, NASA predicted weather to be 30 percent favorable for a launch.

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