Endeavour blasted off on NASA’s next-to-last shuttle flight, thundering through clouds into orbit on Monday morning as the mission commander’s wounded wife, U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, watched along with an exhilarated crowd well into the thousands.
NASA is winding down its 30-year-old shuttle program before embarking on something new. The event generated the kind of excitement seldom seen on Florida’s Space Coast on such a grand scale — despite a delay of more than two weeks from the original launch date because of an electrical problem.
The shuttle quickly disappeared into the clouds, within seconds of lift-off.
Just before launching, commander Mark Kelly made some patriotic remarks: “It’s in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop. To all the millions watching today, including our spouses, children, family and friends, we thank you for your support.”
Remarkably, Giffords made a return visit to see Kelly off. She is still undergoing rehabilitation in a Houston hospital to recover from a gunshot wound to the head in an assassination attempt little more than four months ago.
The Arizona congresswoman was shielded from the cameras on launch day, as were the families of the other five astronauts. All watched the lift-off in private.
Giffords has kept out of the public eye since the Jan. 8 shooting that wounded her and killed six others in Tucson, Arizona.
She and Kelly said their goodbyes, face to face on Sunday.
“Who’s ready for the best show on Earth?” her staff asked in a Twitter update before lift-off.
With Kelly at the helm, Endeavour and its experienced crew of five Americans and an Italian are headed for the International Space Station. They will arrive at the orbiting outpost on Wednesday, delivering a $2 billion magnetic instrument that will seek out antimatter and dark energy in the universe.
Up to 45,000 guests jammed into NASA’s launch site, and thousands packed area roads and towns to see Endeavour soar one last time. Only one shuttle flight remains.
Advance estimates had put Monday’s crowd at 5,00,000, more than the number that saw Discovery’s final hurrah in February. Across the Indian River in Titusville, though, the number of spectators appeared to be down compared with Endeavour’s previous launch attempt.
Electrical trouble grounded the shuttle on April 29, disappointing the hordes of visitors, including President Barack Obama and his family. Repairs over the past two weeks took care of the problem.