Giffords at husband’s launch on 2nd last shuttle

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“That was four seconds of cool,” said Manny Kariotakis of Montreal. The day care owner said he got goosebumps watching the liftoff with thousands along U.S. 1 in Titusville, about 10 miles away.

Just before launching, Kelly thanked all those 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.

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, they will check their ship for any launch damage to Endeavour’s thermal shield. Only a couple of small bits of insulating foam came off the fuel tank during the crucial phase of liftoff, officials said.

It was a trip that Kelly almost didn’t make.

The Navy captain, 47, took a leave from training to be by his wife’s side after she was wounded in the Jan. 8 shooting. But Giffords improved and after two weeks in intensive care in Tucson, she was moved to Houston where Kelly lives and trains.

Her days were filled with rehab, and he yearned to see the shuttle mission through. A month after the shooting, he announced he would fly, saying he expected his wife to be well enough to be at the launch.

And she was. But electrical trouble grounded the shuttle on April 29. Hordes of visitors had gathered, including President Barack Obama and his family.

Repairs took care of the problem, and Giffords made a return visit to Florida to see Kelly off. He bid her goodbye at the exclusive beachfront house the crew uses before launch. It’s the third time she’s seen her husband soar into space _ in 2006, the year before they were married, and again in 2008.

“Who would have thought four and a half months ago that this would have been possible?” said Ron Barber, Giffords‘ district director who was shot in the face and thigh during the shooting. He went to the launch attempt two weeks ago but watched Monday from home in Tucson.

“I would say that this shows her resilience. I have known her for many years. She is determined,” he said.

Giffords watched in private _ as do all the astronauts’ families. She has been shielded from public view since the shooting. The only photograph provided Monday showed her red tulips with the single long-stemmed red rose for each of Kelly’s two teenage daughters from a previous marriage.

“She understands, if not everything, close to everything. There’s hardly a moment that we have where we feel that she’s not quite grasping,” Carusone told reporters.

The next medical hurdle is the replacement of part of Giffords‘ skull that was removed in an emergency operation after the shooting to relieve swelling, Carusone said. Giffords returned to Houston and rehab hours after the launch.

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