Giffords at husband’s shuttle launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — 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.

“She was very proud. She’s always proud of Mark,” Giffords chief of staff Pia Carusone said at a press conference.

Giffords has difficulty speaking, but Carusone said Giffords’ comment after the launch was one of the congresswoman’s oft-used expressions.

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.

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.

This is the 25th and final flight of Endeavour, the baby of NASA’s shuttle fleet. It was built to replace Challenger, destroyed during liftoff 25 years ago this past January, and made its maiden journey six years later to capture and repair a stranded satellite. That first flight ended 19 years ago Monday.

It will end its days at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. NASA’s last shuttle flight, by Atlantis, is targeted for July.

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