President Barack Obama lauded NASA's final space shuttle launch Friday (July 8), saying that the blastoff marks the end of one chapter of human spaceflight, but also the start of a new one.
"Today's launch may mark the final flight of the Space Shuttle, but it propels us into the next era of our never-ending adventure to push the very frontiers of exploration and discovery in space," Obama said in a statement.
Atlantis launched into space at 11:29 a.m. EDT (1529 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, marking the final flight of the space shuttle program, which NASA is shutting down after 30 years of spaceflight. The shuttle is carrying four astronauts on a 12-day delivery mission to the International Space Station.
"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," said Obama, who did not attend the launch but did tour Atlantis with his family before launch. "To them and all of NASA's incredible workforce, I want to express my sincere gratitude. You helped our country lead the space age and you continue to inspire us each day." [Photos: President Obama and NASA]
American icon's last voyage
NASA is retiring its space shuttle fleet to make way for a new exploration program aimed at deep space missions. Thousands of NASA and shuttle contractor workers are expected to lose their jobs once the program is no more.
Previously, the agency planned to replace the shuttle program with a new one aimed at returning astronauts to the moon. But Obama canceled that plan and gave NASA a new directive for deep space exploration, including a crewed asteroid mission by 2025.
"And 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 said.
Obama's comments came just days after he said NASA needs to develop new technologies in order allow faster and longer spaceflights.
"Frankly I have been pushing NASA to revamp its vision," Obama said on July 6 in answer to question from a Twitter user during a Town Hall event. "The shuttle did some extraordinary work in low orbit: experiments, the International Space Station, moving cargo. It was an extraordinary accomplishment and we're very proud of the work that it did. But now what we need is that next technological breakthrough." [Video: See Obama's Full Comments]
Future of U.S. spaceflight
NASA currently plans to use a new space capsule, called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, for future deep space missions. The vehicle is based on work for the agency's Orion spacecraft developed for the previous moon plan.
The heavy-lift rocket for the new program is called the Space Launch System, but the details of the booster are not yet final. This week, NASA officials said they plan to settle on a design for the new rocket by the end of summer.
NASA's space exploration plan will lead to new advances in science and technology, as well spur education, innovation and economic growth, the president said.
A major hurdle to Obama's deep space exploration vision is NASA's budget, which is mired in a maze of congressional battles over cutbacks.
On Thursday, the House Appropriations commerce, justice and science committee, which oversees NASA funding, released a $16.8 billion 2012 budget proposal for the agency that is nearly $2 billion less than what Obama proposed in his 2012 budget request.
The House proposal includes $1.95 billion for the Space Launch System, which is $150 million more than the heavy-lift rocket received for 2011 but nearly $700 million less the amount recommended in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which Obama signed into law in October.
In the meantime, Obama said Americans should take pride in the accomplishments of the shuttle program and he wished the shuttle's veteran astronaut crew well.
"Congratulations to Atlantis, her astronauts, and the people of America's space program on a picture-perfect launch, and good luck on the rest of your mission to the International Space Station, and for a safe return home," Obama said in the Friday statement. "I know the American people share my pride at what we have accomplished as a nation, and my excitement about the next chapter of our preeminence in space."