Cape Canaveral, Fla. — A space shuttle took flight for the next-to-last time Monday as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, still recovering from a gunshot wound and hidden from public view, watched her astronaut husband rocket through the clouds in a deafening roar.
Giffords and the other crew families were described as awe-struck and silent on the rooftop of the launch control center.
“Good stuff, good stuff,” she said from her wheelchair when it was quiet again, according to a congressional aide.
Giffords joined the other five astronauts’ wives and children on top of the Kennedy Space Center building to watch Endeavour’s last voyage as NASA winds down the 30-year-old shuttle program. After liftoff, there were hugs all around, the aide said.
Endeavour disappeared so quickly into the clouds that the launch manager apologized later to the hundreds of thousands who jammed nearby roads and towns.
Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, is Endeavour’s commander and his twin astronaut brother, Scott, gave red tulips to Giffords once he safely reached orbit.
Kelly carried her wedding ring into space, which he has done in the past. This time, she wanted something back: his ring to stay on Earth. She had it around her neck on a silver chain from a funky Arizona jewelry store that included a heart and an Arizona map.
Giffords has difficulty speaking, but Carusone said Giffords’ comment after the launch was one of the congresswoman’s oft-used expressions.
That Giffords would watch the shuttle launch seemed improbable a little more than four months ago. The would-be assassin shot her in the head, critically wounding her, killing six people and injuring 12 others at a political event in her hometown of Tucson, Ariz.
The bullet pierced the left side of Giffords’ brain, affecting speech and movement on her right side.
Her doctors have said she has made remarkable progress in what will be a long recovery.
Monday’s 8:56 a.m. 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.
This time the countdown was close to perfect, and the launch made up in sound what it lacked in visuals.
“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.
Today, they will check their ship for any launch damage to Endeavour’s thermal shield.