CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Endeavour blasted off on NASA’s next-to-last shuttle flight, thundering through clouds into orbit yesterday morning as the mission commander’s wounded wife, Gabrielle Giffords, watched along with an exhilarated crowd 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.
Yesterday’s countdown was close to perfect, and the shuttle quickly disappeared into thin, low clouds.
Just before launching, Kelly said, “It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop.’’
Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman still undergoing rehabilitation from a gunshot wound to the head in an assassination attempt more than four months ago, watched the launch in a wheelchair in private with her mother and the other astronauts’ wives atop the Launch Control Center.