Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off Friday morning on the final mission of America's 30-year shuttle program, a thunderously poignant moment that drew people from around the world to watch.
Some of the thousands of onlookers chanted "U.S.A." Others shed tears as Atlantis roared aloft atop its powerful rockets on what a NASA commentator called a "sentimental journey into history."
"Godspeed, Atlantis," read a sign held up by a saluting member of the ground crew whose job it was to seal the shuttle's hatch for the last time.
Inside the launch control room, even normally sober engineers acknowledged choking up. Launch Director Mike Leinbach threw his arm around a colleague and said, as they watched the shuttle ascend, "We'll never see that again."
"It seemed like we didn't want to leave," Leinbach said of the mood after launch. "It was like the end of a party and you just don't want to leave."
The four-member crew blasted off at 11:29 a.m. on what was originally planned to be a 12-day mission. The four - all shuttle veterans - are on their way to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. They are expected to dock with the station on Sunday.
NASA will likely try to extend the mission by one day, Associate Administrator Mike Gerstenmaier said.
The possibility of storms had raised doubt about whether the launch would take place as planned, but NASA gave the shuttle a "go" for launch a few minutes before liftoff. With the countdown nearing the 30-second mark, the launch had to be delayed briefly to investigate whether a vent arm had properly retracted, which it had.
A slight drop in cabin pressure as the shuttle climbed into the sky raised an alarm, but engineers attributed it to normal expansion that allowed some oxygen to escape. It wasn't dangerous, but it added an extra measure of excitement for the crew, Leinbach said.
As many as a million people may have witnessed the historic moment, including some who were at Kennedy Space Center three decades ago for the first shuttle lift off.
Linda Johnston fulfilled a lifelong dream to watch a launch, tearing up as the shuttle lifted off.
"I think it's kind of a real shame it's not going to be around anymore," she said.