Space shuttle Atlantis thundered off its seaside launch pad Friday, rising atop a tower of smoke and flames as it left Earth on the final flight of the U.S. space shuttle program.

About 1 million sightseers lined causeways and beaches around the Kennedy Space Center in central Florida, angling for a last glimpse of the iconic ship that has defined the U.S. space program for the last 30 years.

They were nearly disappointed, as cloudy skies and nearby rain threatened to delay Atlantis' launch on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station.

Skies cleared in time for liftoff, which was delayed for about three minutes by a last-minute technical glitch. It went ahead 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 station.

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

NASA is ending the shuttle program due to high operating costs.

Instead, the United States will rely on Russia to fly its 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.

(Editing by Tom Brown)