CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Against the odds, space shuttle Atlantis shrugged off foul weather and roared toward orbit Friday on the final launch of the shuttle program.

Until the final minutes, meeting the scheduled launch time of 11:26 a.m. Friday appeared unlikely. The shuttle’s weather officer had warned for days about a 70 percent likelihood that rain, clouds and lightning would scrub the launch.

“We just worked that weather all day long and we ended up coming right down to the wire,” said Mike Moses, shuttle mission management team chair in a post-launch press conference.

Certain that no dangerous weather was nearby, NASA officials made an exception to the rule that no rain can be within 20 nautical miles of launch, Moses said.

In the end, it was uncertainty about whether launch pad equipment had fully retracted that froze the countdown briefly at 31 seconds to liftoff, bringing cries of disappointment from a crowd of thousands of gathered at Kennedy Space Center.

“It got a little dicey there a couple times, but we found our way through it,” said Robert Cabana, center director.

Technicians quickly resolved the problem and the count continued, allowing the shuttle to take off about two minutes behind its optimum launch time, but still well inside the launch window. Although NASA officials had said they would wait for a break in the clouds, the shuttle disappeared into a cloud layer at several thousand feet with no ill effects.

The final space shuttle mission, under the command of retired Navy pilot Chris Ferguson, is devoted to carrying supplies and equipment to the International Space Station, the orbiting science platform that is perhaps the shuttle program’s greatest achievement. The shuttle program was suspended after the 2003 Columbia disaster, which killed all seven crew members, but was continued expressly to complete the space station.

That disaster, along with the 1986 Challenger explosion that also killed seven astronauts, convinced officials the shuttle, despite its great capabilities, was too dangerous for the long term.

The shuttle is scheduled to dock with the space station on Sunday, officials said, offloading a year’s worth of supplies, collecting trash and installing a refueling robot on the exterior of the station.

The mission is scheduled to last 12 days, with a planned landing at Kennedy Space Center on July 20. NASA officials say they’ll squeeze an extra day out of the final shuttle mission, if possible.

Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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