*See photos below*
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An experienced crew of astronauts boarded space shuttle Atlantis on Friday for its final journey, a delivery trip to the International Space Station that will provide fresh batteries and extra room. Atlantis was slated to blast off at 2:20 p.m. Everything was going well in the countdown, and the weather was looking favorable. Forecasters were sticking with their 70 percent odds of good weather. Clouds were the lone concern.
More than 40,000 guests - the biggest launch-day crowd in years - descended on the Kennedy Space Center and the roads leading into it, all of them eager to witness Atlantis' last launch.
"Hock, you look good in that seat," Mission Control told commander Kenneth Ham as he strapped in. "Thanks for checking in, brother," Ham replied to the astronaut who conducted the voice check from Mission Control in Houston.
The 12-day mission is the last one for Atlantis, the fourth in NASA's line of space shuttles. Only two flights remain after this one, by Discovery and Endeavour. NASA plans to end the 30-year program by the end of this year. Atlantis rocketed into orbit for the first time in 1985. This will be its 32nd trip and the 132nd shuttle flight overall. The shuttle is loaded with fresh batteries and a Russian-built compartment for the space station. The 20-foot-long module is crammed with food, laptop computers and other U.S. supplies, part of the deal worked out between the two countries' space agencies. There's so much gear inside that the space station crew will wait until Atlantis leaves before unpacking everything.
Ham and his crew will install the compartment on the space station, and carry out three spacewalks to replace six old batteries and hook up an antenna and other spare parts. Story continued on next page
Spectators for the launch included late-night TV host David Letterman, who toured the space center Thursday.
Dozens of Russians also were on hand, as well as about 150 Twittering guests who lined the road as the astronauts were driven to the pad. This is the second time NASA has opened Kennedy's media complex to so-called tweeters on launch day. A NASA spokeswoman said it's a way to spread the message and get the public excited about space exploration, as the shuttle program winds down.
President Barack Obama wants NASA to focus on getting astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and into orbit around Mars by 2035. He canceled the previous administration's Constellation program, considered a continuation of the 1960s Apollo moon program.
The space station, meanwhile, will keep operating until at least 2020. Under the Obama plan, NASA astronauts will keep hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz rockets until U.S. private enterprise can develop spacecraft to safely get humans into orbit.
As for Atlantis, it will be prepped for a possible rescue mission for the very last shuttle flight, once it returns from the space station. Its ultimate destination will be a museum somewhere in America. The resting spot has yet to be chosen.