CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Backlit by a brilliant morning sun, space shuttle Endeavour blasted to space -- at last -- on its final mission Monday, carrying a long-grounded $2-billion astrophysics device and a little bit of the hearts of thousands of space shuttle workers.
Endeavour's launch was watched by perhaps a half-million people crowding the Brevard County coastline, seeking a chance to witness what should be the next-to-last launch in the 30-year history of space shuttles.
Among those with top vantage points at Kennedy Space Center was U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head by a gunman who killed six and wounded 12 in a January assassination attempt. While continuing what her doctors have labeled a "miraculous recovery," she traveled twice to KSC from a rehabilitation hospital in Houston to watch as her husband, Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, commanded the Endeavour in his fourth flight into space.
Not among onlookers this time: President Barack Obama, who brought his family to the previous launch attempt on April 29. They and 750,000 other people who turned out that day were disappointed when NASA scrubbed the shot because of an electrical problem.
This time Endeavour's countdown appeared flawless, except for one broken tile that technicians quickly repaired Monday morning. The orbiter, riding atop a column of flame, punched through a canopy of light clouds shortly before 9 a.m. EDT, roaring toward a 16-day mission, delivering equipment, supplies and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station.
In the moments before blastoff, Kelly called Endeavour "this incredible ship" and thanked the thousands of space workers who kept it flying, and addressed the country.
"As Americans we endeavor to build a better life than the generation before and endeavor to be a united nation. In those efforts we are often tested," he said. "This mission represents the power of teamwork, commitment and exploration. It is in the DNA of our country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop."
Initially, this launch was never meant to be. The AMS, under development since 1993, was originally supposed to go into space in the middle of the last decade. But it lost its ride after the shuttle program shut down for nearly two years after the loss of Columbia in 2003 and all flights' manifests were rebooked to hasten the shutle's retirement.
NASA scheduled this Endeavour mission only after Congress, and Obama's 2010 federal budget, bankrolled an additional flight specifically to deliver and install the AMS on the space station. The mission was delayed six times since its first scheduled target date, last July. The latest delay came three hours before the April 29 scheduled liftoff, when an electrical switchbox caused fuel-line heaters to malfunction. The switchbox was replaced, and the heaters worked perfectly in tests Monday morning.
Now the scientists behind the AMS hope to prove it will be worth all the delays. The device will sit outside the space station, seeking to collect high-energy cosmic rays and space particles that have may have originated with the "big bang," which astrophysicists theorize created the universe. If so, the findings could help them understand the makeup and origins of the universe.
Some scientists have expressed strong skepticism that the AMS will work, but others think it might become the greatest astrophysics tool since the shuttles took the Hubble Space Telescope into space. Even if it does not detect its primary goals, big-bang antimatter or dark matter, the AMS's potential to analyze cosmic rays and particles is unparalleled and its findings likely will be invaluable, said its principal investigator, Nobel Prize laureate Samuel Ting. More than 600 scientists from 16 countries are involved with it.
"We want to put a powerful physics detector, a state-of-the-art physics detector, into space," Ting said recently.
All of Endeavour's crew members are space veterans. Kelly, 47, is on his fourth shuttle mission. Pilot Greg Johnson, 49, also piloted Endeavour in 2008. The mission specialists are Mike Fincke, 44, who has been to the space station twice before on Russian rockets; Roberto Vittori, 46, an Italian astronaut who has been to the space station twice via Russian rockets; Drew Feustel, 45, who is on his second shuttle flight; Greg Chamitoff, 48, who has flown to and from the space station on different shuttles.
As NASA prepared, launched, managed and landed space shuttle Discovery on the previous mission -- its finale -- and as the agency prepared and launched Endeavour Monday, officials have tried to steer clear of expressing much reflection or emotion over the wind-down to the shuttle program, insisting they still were too busy. The Endeavour launch was the 134th. Atlantis will fly the final shuttle mission in July.
This time the crowds of onlookers were noticably smaller, but many people chose to arrive in the wee hours to make sure they got a chance to see one of the final two launches.
Chuck Sage of Valdosta, Ga., arrived with his four grandchildren around 2 a.m., setting up at Titusville's Veterans Memorial Park with hundreds of other early arrivals who pitched tents, sleeping bags and lawn chairs along the water's edge.
Dewey Holland of Augusta, Ga., arrived at 1:30 a.m., thinking this might be his last chance "to see one of the big rockets go up."
The mood likely was different for thousands of NASA employees who spent most or all of their careers on the program. Many already have been laid off, and more will be soon as KSC and the Space Coast area move toward an uncertain future. Just last week, 1,942 more got pink slips, letting them know they had just a few weeks of employment left with the shuttle's primary contractor, United Space Alliance.
NASA, the White House and Congress still are undecided about what is next in the agency's manned space flight program, and nothing is likely before 2018.
Endeavour is the kid sister of the shuttle fleet, making its 25th flight, 19 years after its maiden mission in 1992. The two oldest shuttles, Columbia and Challenger, were lost with their crews to in-flight tragedies, Challenger in 1986, and Columbia in 2003. Discovery, the oldest remaining, completed its final space mission March 9, and now is being prepped as a museum piece at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
Endeavour will return to Earth June 1 then be readied as an exhibit for the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
KSC Launch Director Mike Leinbach recalled working on Endeavour's maiden launch and thinking the brand new spaceship was "just as beautiful as it possibly could be."
"I'll just say, you know, last time I was out to the pad she still looked awfully good out there," he said. "Got a lot of life left in her. But it's not to be."