President Barack Obama gave Atlantis an inspirational final sendoff Friday, hailing astronauts and crew of the 30-year shuttle program and evoking "new boundaries" in space, notably a mission to Mars.
Millions of Americans paused to watch on television as rain clouds parted long enough to allow the storied shuttle to blast into orbit for a final time.
Mixed emotions were on full view at the Cape Canaveral, Florida, as the most successful NASA program winds down after 135 shuttle flights into space, and Obama sought to tap into a vein of pride in the storied accomplishments that cemented what he called America's "pre-eminence in space."
"Behind Atlantis and her crew of brave astronauts stand thousands of dedicated workers who have poured their hearts and souls into America's space shuttle program over the past three decades," the president said in a statement.
"You helped our country lead the space age, and you continue to inspire us each day."
While Friday's launch could be seen as bittersweet, "it propels us into the next era of our never-ending adventure to push the very frontiers of exploration and discovery in space," Obama added.
"I have tasked the men and women of NASA with an ambitious new mission: to break new boundaries in space exploration, ultimately sending Americans to Mars. I know they are up to the challenge -- and I plan to be around to see it."
Obama last year axed NASA's Constellation program that would have returned astronauts to the moon, committing instead to concentrating on sending US astronauts into Mars orbit within three decades.
Once the shuttle program ends, the world's astronauts will have to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry them to the International Space Station and back until private enterprise comes up with a next-generation US space capsule for cargo and crew.
Source: AFP American Edition