Loud, proud, and to the applause of vast crowds who had gathered to cheer her into orbit, the space shuttle Endeavour has successfully blasted into the skies above Florida at the start of what will be her final mission.
The spectacular launch from the Kennedy Space Center today marked the start of the penultimate flight in the history of the shuttle programme, which is being wound-down by the US government later this year.
Among the 45,000 guests at NASA’s launch site was Gabrielle Giffords, the Congresswoman who is recovering from serious head injuries sustained during January’s Tucson shooting. Her husband Mark Kelly is the commander of the six-strong crew.
After watching Endeavour achieve orbit, Giffords is reported to have turned to her aides and declared: “Good stuff! Good stuff!”
Earlier, in the minutes before lift-off, her husband had told onlookers: “This mission represents the power of teamwork, commitment and exploration. It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop.”
Endeavour reached a speed of 3,200 miles per hour as it entered the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Lift off had been delayed by several weeks from the original scheduled date because of a series of technical problems.
She is due to arrive at the International Space Station on Wednesday, carrying a $2 billion particle physics experiment along with a selection of spare parts.
Once Endeavour returns to dry land in roughly a fortnight’s time, she will be taken to a museum. The only active shuttle in the now cash-strapped US space agency’s fleet will then be Atlantis, which scheduled to complete a final flight some time in July.