It was as spectacular a farewell as one could imagine – space shuttle Endeavour, with astronaut Mark Kelly in command, roaring into the sky as his wife, the injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, watched along with half a million other people.
Endeavour, with six astronauts on board for its final flight ever, lifted off from launch pad 39A here at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, trailing blindingly-bright flame. Within 20 seconds it disappeared into a deck of low-hanging clouds, leaving a pillar of steam and a crowd of awed onlookers behind. Endeavour is to dock with the International Space Station, delivering supplies and a sophisticated instrument meant to study the so-called "dark matter" that may make up most of the universe.
NASA estimated that half a million people crowded around the perimeter of the space center to watch the liftoff. But many of those eyes – when they weren't watching the shuttle – were on Giffords, who joined the other astronauts' families on the roof of control center, three miles from the launch pad.
"There was a lot of cheering, a lot of clapping," said Giffords' congressional chief of staff, Pia Carusone, after the launch. "I can't say there were a lot of words, but what I do remember, she looked up at me and said, 'Good stuff, good stuff.'"
Carusone let it be known that Kelly had arranged a sentimental gesture for his wife and his two daughters from a previous marriage. Eight minutes after launch, just as the shuttle's engines were shutting down and the ship was settling into orbit, bouquets of roses were delivered to them at launch control.
Ever since the shooting in Tucson on Jan. 8, when six people died and 14 others, including Giffords, were injured, the story of her recovery has captivated the nation. At first, Kelly said he was afraid he would not be able to prepare for the flight and tend to his wounded wife at the same time, and he handed off command to a fellow astronaut, Rick Sturckow. But after several weeks, he said, it was clear that she was in good hands and would want him to fly.
"Gabrielle Giffords is too tough to let this beat her," he said.
On Sunday, according to Carusone, Kelly and Giffords had a fond private goodbye, and swapped wedding rings. He is taking her ring with him on the flight, and she will hold onto his until his return. Carusone said the congresswoman wore the ring on a chain around her neck.
For Giffords, it was a triumph to come here from her rehab center in Houston. Carusone said she was flown here in a small NASA jet (NASA routinely supplies transportation for astronauts' families to launches) on Sunday morning. She slept Sunday night at a hotel in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and flew back to the hospital in Houston this afternoon.
Two nurses came along on the trip, said Carusone, each working a 12-hour shift, though Carusone said Giffords does not need constant medical attention.
"She's making steady progress since her injury," she said in an interview with ABC News before the launch. "I think she's definitely made a jump just in the last week."
"Leaving the hospital, traveling, meeting new people, all of that has a therapeutic purpose."
The shooting, and the public attention that followed, brought astronaut Kelly a measure of fame that few modern astronauts have experienced, and which he never sought. He said he thought the focus should be on the mission, the upcoming end of the space shuttle program, and the $2 billion Alpha-Magnetic Spectrometer Endeavour is carrying to the space station to explore the makeup of the universe.
Kelly does have five crewmates. His co-pilot is Gregory H. Johnson. There are three spacewalkers, Greg Chamitoff, Drew Feustel and Mike Fincke. The shuttle's robot arm is to be operated by Roberto Vittori, an Italian astronaut who works for the European Space Agency. They are scheduled to dock with the International Space Station on Wednesday, and come home before dawn on June 1.
"It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore," said Kelly by radio to mission control before launch. "We must not stop. To all the millions watching today including our spouses, children, family and friends, we thank you for your support."