CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - Endeavour blasted off on NASA’s next-to-last shuttle flight, thundering through clouds into orbit Monday morning as the mission commander’s wounded wife, Gabrielle Giffords, watched along with an exhilarated crowd estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
“Good stuff, good stuff,” Giffords was quoted as saying by her chief of staff as Endeavour took flight for the final time. Husband Mark Kelly, the shuttle’s skipper, had red tulips presented to her afterward. She wore his wedding ring on a silver chain while he carried hers with him.
NASA is winding down its 30-year-old shuttle program before embarking on something new. The liftoff 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.
Monday’s countdown was close to perfect, and the shuttle quickly disappeared into thin, low clouds.
“That was four seconds of cool,” said Manny Kariotakis, who was visiting from Montreal. The 50-year-old day care owner got goosebumps watching the liftoff with thousands along Highway 1 in Titusville.
Launch manager Mike Moses apologized for the fleeting glimpse. “The view wasn’t the best,” he said.
Just before launching, Kelly thanked all the who put hands “on this incredible ship.”
“It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop,” he said.
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. She has weakness on her right side, and difficulty speaking.
The Arizona congresswoman, sitting in a wheelchair, watched the launch in private with her mother and the other astronauts’ wives and children atop the Launch Control Center. There were hugs all around after the shuttle rocketed away, said the congresswoman’s chief of staff, Pia Carusone.
“It was a real sense of relief from all of us that this went off safely,” Carusone said.
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 Wednesday, delivering a $2 billion magnetic instrument that will seek out antimatter and dark energy in the universe.
On Tuesday, the astronauts will survey their ship for any launch damage to Endeavour’s thermal shield. Only a couple small bits of insulating foam came off the fuel tank during the crucial phase of liftoff, officials said.