In a bittersweet moment, the space shuttle Atlantis climbed away from Earth for the last time on top of a mountainous cloud of fire and smoke. It left the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 11:28 a.m. Eastern Time and, ramping up to speeds greater than four miles per second, reached orbit nine minutes later. “Atlantis is flexing its muscles one final time,” said the NASA TV commentator at mission control in Houston, Texas. The shuttle is due to dock with the International Space Station on Sunday.
With NASA’s human spaceflight programme — or what remains of it — literally up in the air, space scientists are wondering how much they should mourn the shuttle, a programme which at times has siphoned money away from science. NASA astronomers got a sense of their place in the pecking order on Wednesday, when they learned that their raison d’etre, the James Webb Space Telescope, might be killed.