This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. EDT.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The space shuttle Atlantis launched majestically into space Friday on its final planned orbital trek before NASA retires the reusable space plane and its two sister ships for good.
Atlantis soared into clear skies from Launch Pad 39A here at Kennedy Space Center at 2:20 p.m. EDT (1820 GMT).
"The folks have given us a great launch," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said after the launch. "The vehicle looks like it's in really clean shape, ready to go do a pretty challenging mission in front of us." [See Atlantis' launch photos.]
Commander Kenneth Ham is leading Atlantis' crew of six veteran astronauts on a 12-day sojourn to the International Space Station.
"On behalf of all the manufacturing, processing, flight and launch teams that have worked on Atlantis since March of 1980, I'd like to wish you all good luck, godspeed, and have a little fun up there," shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach radioed to the crew shortly before launch.
"Thanks Mike," Ham replied. "Those are great words, and like you said, there's a thousand folks out there that have taken care of this bird for a long time. Right now a special thanks to orbiter for getting us off the pad today. And we're going to take her on a 32nd flight, and if you don't mind, we'll take her out of the barn and make a few more laps around the planet."
After this flight there are only two space shuttle missions left before the orbiters are retired and sent to museums around the country. This is Atlantis' 32nd journey to space, and the 132nd space shuttle mission since the fleet began flying in April 1981.
"It truly is an amazing part of our space history," STS-132 mission specialist Stephen Bowen said in a preflight interview. "It's a shame to be seeing it going away but after 30 years it's probably time to move on."
On a lark, the final crew of Atlantis took a break to pose for a photo in matching tuxedos with bow-ties before suiting up in their orange launch-and-entry suits Friday morning.
There was some last-minute drama over a tiny ball bearing found in Atlantis' cargo bay earlier this week. Mission managers wanted to make sure the metal BB wasn't a sign of loose hardware in the shuttle's cargo bay. In the end, it was no concern and Atlantis blasted off as planned.
Television host David Letterman, moonwalking astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and former NASA administrator Mike Griffin were among the famous guests present for the historic launch. More than 39,000 guests were at Kennedy Space Center for the launch, plus more than 150 NASA fans at a "tweetup," or meeting for NASA Twitter followers.
Skywatchers on Earth will have one last chance to see Atlantis in space with their own eyes during this mission. The shuttle can be seen before its Sunday docking at the space station and after its departure later this month.
New Russian room
Flying with Ham and Bowen are pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli and mission specialists Michael Good, Garrett Reisman, and Piers Sellers.
Atlantis is delivering a new $200 million Russian room ? called the Mini Research Module-1 (MRM-1), or "Rassvet" ("Dawn" in Russian) ? to the space station, along with a load of spare supplies, including a space-to-ground antenna and a set of new batteries. In exchange for transporting the module aboard a space shuttle, the United States was allowed to stow about 3,000 pounds (1,400 kg) of cargo inside it, including new laptops, food and supplies for the crew.
The astronauts plan three spacewalks during their docked mission at the space station to install the new hardware.
The crew will be doing "a whole lot of servicing tasks to basically set up the station ? sort of brand-spanking-new condition for the post-shuttle period ? changing out some batteries, putting in some new communication stuff, basically little upgrades across the station so it's in good shape for the long haul," Sellers said.
Atlantis is scheduled to dock with the orbiting laboratory on Sunday at 10:27 a.m. EDT (1427 GMT).
New era without shuttle
Today's launch is occurring amidst a transition period for America's space program. With the shuttle fleet retiring, NASA and lawmakers must decide how to move forward.
U.S. President Barack Obama has proposed relying on commercial companies to build spacecraft to take people to low-Earth orbit and the space station. Meanwhile, NASA would focus on designing a heavy-lift vehicle to carry astronauts to a nearby asteroid and on to Mars.
This plan has met with resistance from some lawmakers and former astronauts, such as Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon, who argued that the plan was too hastily assembled and that private industry is not yet ready to transport astronauts to space. Armstrong's Apollo 11 moon mission crewmate Buzz Aldrin has spoken out in favor of the new NASA plan.
Regardless of how the new era shapes up, the current era in U.S. space exploration is coming to a close.
Atlantis flew on her first flight in October 1985. The shuttle was named after the RV Atlantis, a two-masted sailing ship that served as a research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Mass.
"She started production 30 years ago, so it's been a good long run for Atlantis," NASA test director Mike Leinbach said of the space shuttle.
During her previous 31 missions, Atlantis has played an instrumental role in helping to build the space station and repair the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle is slated to end its final mission on May 26 with a landing here at the Kennedy Space Center.
"The legacy itself is unbelievable," Ham said in a preflight interview. Among Atlantis' accomplishments are delivering the Hubble Space Telescope, the Magellan and Galileo spacecraft, as well as numerous trips to the former Russian space station Mir and the International Space Station. "This incredible machine has done so much for humanity," Ham said.
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SPACE.com is providing complete coverage of Atlantis' STS-132 mission to the International Space Station with Senior Writer Clara Moskowitz in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Managing Editor Tariq Malik based in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.