CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- This week's launch of space shuttle Atlantis came about almost as an afterthought.
If weather permits, Atlantis will roar aloft at 11:26 a.m. Friday -- culminating the 30-year run of what aerospace experts call the most amazing space vehicle ever built, and paying homage to the 14 astronauts who died aboard Challenger and Columbia and the 355 others who returned safely during 134 previous missions.
It might not happen on schedule. NASA officials said Wednesday that an incoming tropical wave offers a 70 percent chance that the launch will be scrubbed. If so, they'll try again Saturday or Sunday morning.
And whenever it flies, Atlantis' final mission hardly compares in complexity or significance to its previous flights that launched satellites and space probes; carried astronauts and components to the International Space Station; and ventured more than 400miles above Earth to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Its four-member crew is the smallest since the earliest shuttles in 1982: commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.