NASA's space shuttle Endeavour made a successful and historic launch at 8:56 A.M. Eastern time Monday, as the agency approached the end of its shuttle program, first started in the 1960s. The liftoff marked Endeavour's final mission and the second-to-last shuttle mission for NASA.

The 16-day STS 134 mission, commanded by Mark Kelly, carried a cosmic-ray detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 2, two communications antennas, a high-presure gas tank, parts for the Dextre robot, and five other astronauts to the International Space Station: Pilot Gregory H. Johnson and four mission specialists, Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel and the European Space Agency's Roberto Vittori.

An earlier launch attempt for STS 134, on April 29, was scrubbed due to what amounted to a blown fuse. Engineers never were able to trace what caused it, and to play it safe they replaced the wiring and thermostats controlled by the fuse. During launch preparations, engineers tested the heaters where the problem had first surfaced to make sure all was well.

Takeoff is a much more visceral experience in person than it seems on TV, says George Musser, who traveled to Kennedy Space Center in late April and returned this weekend to cover the landmark launch for Scientific American. "The exhaust flare is as bright as the sun, and the roar pounds your eardrum," he says. "There's a disconcerting disconnect between sound and light: You see the shuttle blast off long before you hear it."

The final mission of NASA's shuttle program, STS 135 on Atlantis, is set for early July.

View a slide show of the prelaunch activities and liftoff.