Space Shuttle Atlantis beat the odds and launched on schedule today, despite a weather forecast that was only 30 percent favorable for launch.

Traffic was heavy in the pre-dawn hours with record crowds hoping to catch a glimpse of history. The historic NASA press site had its largest crowd since the return to flight missions in 2005, with about 1,500 credentialed media in attendance in addition to NASA employees, contractors, and astronauts. Some proudly displayed their press credentials from the Shuttle’s first flight in 1981. 

Smiles and applause were mixed with tears as the Shuttle thundered away and the reality of the end of the program started sinking in. Several thousand Space Shuttle workers will soon be receiving pink slips, with many thousands more already out of work.

Atlantis is running with the smallest crew since the 1983, with only four astronauts heading into orbit instead of the usual seven. The smaller crew is necessary because of flight rules that require a rescue plan should the shuttle’s heat shield be compromised during launch. Those plans in the past always involved using another Space Shuttle to rescue the crew. With Discovery and Endeavour currently being prepped for retirement, the crew would instead stay on the International Space Station and be brought down one at a time from the station over the course of a year in Russian Soyuz capsules.

NASA officials now are focusing on the mission, which involves transferring 8,000 pounds of supplies and parts to the space station to hold over crews there until commercial resupply flights are ready later this year. Atlantis also will fly an experiment to refuel satellites in orbit.