Space Shuttle Endeavour launches on final mission

The space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Monday.
Terry Renna | AP
The space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Monday.
Posted May 16, 2011, at 6:57 p.m.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space shuttle Endeavour vaulted elegantly into the sky Monday, a spectacle of fire and power lent a grace note by the wounded congresswoman watching from a wheelchair below.

As Endeavour streaked into space, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who had watched from a rooftop with her husband’s wedding ring hanging from a silver chain around her neck, looked up and said, “Good stuff. Good stuff,” her chief of staff Pia Carusone said.

Giffords’s appearance here to watch her husband, Mark Kelly, command Endeavour’s final mission added a new chapter to a remarkable saga of survival and recovery, nearly 4 ½ months after she was shot in the head in an attack in Tucson that left six others dead.

The couple swapped wedding rings before the flight, a twist on their usual habit of merely sending Giffords’ ring into space with Kelly. Hers is now with Kelly in low-Earth orbit, along with a photograph of the couple and a note that Giffords wrote him with her left hand. She was right-handed before the shooting, but so much has changed. One thing that remained untouched, though, is her  voice, Carusone said. “It sounds as it did before the shooting,” Carusone said.

Giffords observed the earth-shuddering takeoff from the rooftop of the Kennedy Space Center’s launch control center, surrounded by astronaut families she had bonded with before the shooting turned her into an internationally known figure. “There were hugs all around,” Carusone said. Scott Kelly, her husband’s twin brother and an astronaut himself who recently returned from the International Space Station, brought red roses for Giffords and Kelly’s daughters from a previous marriage, Claire and Claudia, Carusone said.

Giffords will return Monday to Houston, where she is rehabilitating, and is not sure she’ll return for the planned wee-hours landing of Endeavour on June 1, Carusone said. Each move is made in consultation with Giffords as well as her doctors, Carusone said. “She understands, if not everything, close to everything, to the point where she understands sarcastic humor,” said Carusone, who added that there is no timetable for Giffords to return to Congress.

“Our hope is that she can return to her life both personally and professionally,” Carusone said shortly after Endeavour took off on the penultimate flight for a 30-year-old U.S. space shuttle program soon to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Endeavour is a craft born of sorrow — it was built as a replacement for the shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after launch in 1986, killing all seven crew members. But in its final flight, Endeavour’s bittersweet legacy was entwined with joy over Giffords’ rapid recuperation from the damage caused by the Jan. 8 shooting.

Giffords has delighted doctors with the pace of her recovery, even going out to dinner with her husband recently. She was flown to Florida by NASA, and her staff reported on her Facebook page that it was a “smooth flight with STS 134 astronaut Greg Johnson’s family.”

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