KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida, May 16, 2011 -- The space shuttle Endeavour took off on its final flight into a cloud-dappled sky this morning, with its crew of six astronauts, led by commander Mark Kelly. The shuttle blasted off at 8:56 a.m. ET, and was in orbit eight minutes later.
It was a dramatic goodbye in more than one way. Astronaut Kelly, in the most spectacular way, got to put on a show for his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was so badly wounded in that January 8 shooting in Tucson. And Endeavour will never again leave for space. Only one more shuttle flight, by the orbiter Atlantis in July, is on NASA's launch manifest.
Rep. Giffords, according to her staff, watched the launch from the roof of the control center three miles from Pad 39A. She was joined by the families of the other astronauts, but for them it was an intensely private experience. While doctors say Giffords is recovering steadily, it is a slow process.
ABC News has been told Kelly had a last private moment with his wife on Sunday, and they swapped wedding rings. He wore hers into space, while she will keep his until he returns from space. She also had a note to him snuck into the shuttle, for him to read on board.
"She's making daily progress since her injury," said her Congressional chief of staff, Pia Carusone, in an interview with ABC News after they got here. "All we hope for at this point is that she makes a strong recovery and is able to return to her regular life."
Her brush with death, and Kelly's devotion to her, gave him a degree of fame few other modern astronauts have had, and which he never sought. For a time after the Tucson shooting, in which six people died and 14, including Giffords, were injured, it was possible he would not be able to fly and attend to his wife at the same time. He finally said she was in good hands and wanted him to go.
Half a million people are estimated to have crowded around the Kennedy Space Center to see Endeavour launch on a 16-day flight to the International Space Station.
"The feeling of it taking off was amazing. I haven't felt anything like that before," said Brittany Gibson of Huntsville, Ala., after the shuttle disapeared into the sky.
"It was just so emotional," said Lisa Bain of Meridian, Ohio. "I choked up. I couldn't take any pictures or tweet during the launch. It was amazing.'
In a business famous for its firsts, Endeavour's flight is a last -- the last time this ship ever flies. It was first launched in 1992, and made some headlines at the time when three astronauts (two at a time was NASA's usual maximum) went on a dramatic spacewalk to corral a disabled, slowly-spinning satellite with their gloved hands. The ship has flown successfully 23 times since then.
"The shuttle's been such an awesome vehicle over the years," said astronaut Michael Good, who has flown two missions on board Atlantis and came to see Endeavour off. "But it's time to move on beyond low Earth orbit."
Shuttles Retire; No Replacement in Sight
How that will happen is not clear; the Obama administration canceled the Constellation project that President George W. Bush proposed in 2004.
Even after 19 years of space travel, Endeavour is the baby of NASA's shuttle fleet, literally risen from the ashes. It was assembled, largely from extra parts for its sister ships, after the loss of the shuttle Challenger in 1986.
The shuttle program never really got over that disaster and the loss of seven beloved astronauts, including the teacher Christa McAuliffe. Before Challenger, there had been talk of weekly launches and, perhaps, the assembly in Earth orbit of a ship to take astronauts to Mars. Since then the shuttles have been largely used to bring up components and supplies for the space station.
After seven more astronauts died in the Columbia accident in 2003, Bush ordered that the shuttles be retired as soon as possible -- when the space station was finished in 2010. Station assembly fell behind; after Endeavour's flight there is one more mission planned, by Atlantis this summer.
Mark Kelly has five crewmates. His co-pilot is Gregory H. Johnson -- nicknamed "Box" to prevent confusion with fellow astronaut Gregory C. Johnson, who flew in 2009 and is nicknamed "Ray J." 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.
Space Shuttle Endeavour
All six men have flown in space before; Fincke, in fact, has spent a year of his life in orbit on two separate space station missions. Past shuttle flights usually carried seven people, but NASA decided to leave one behind so there could be more "upmass" -- yes, that's a NASA word -- supplies for the station that NASA knows it will not be able to send after Endeavour and Atlantis are retired to museums.
So this is a sentimental journey. After the shuttles are finished, fully half the workers who serviced them will be laid off, and several years will probably pass before astronauts leave here for space again. In nearby Titusville, Fla., we passed an empty house for sale -- three bedrooms, two baths, for all of $32,000.
How's the mood? "It's hard to answer that question," said astronaut Good, "without using the word 'bittersweet.'"