CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Space shuttle Endeavour soared into the sky for the last time Monday morning, delighting a crowd of hundreds of thousands of spectators as it created a second sunrise that was as spectacular as it was brief.
Cheers erupted across Florida's coast as Endeavour rode a trail of fire into the sky, but then disappeared behind a low deck of clouds just seconds after the 8:56 a.m. launch.
"We don't have any launch commit criteria that say how long you can see the launch for before it goes out of sight," shuttle launch manager Mike Moses said to laughs after the liftoff. "So I apologize. The view wasn't the best, but the data we were looking at in the control center was absolutely perfect."
Tourists had crowded every available inch of free space along the beaches, bridges, and highways in the area, hoping to catch a glimpse of the second-to-last shuttle launch. Local schools worried about busing delays as an estimated half-million people converged on the space center.
One tourist who was not on hand for the launch was President Barack Obama. The first family made a rare visit to Kennedy Space Center for Endeavour's launch back on April 29, but they had to settle for a tour of the shuttle processing hangar when a failed fuel line heater forced NASA to halt the countdown.
Two subsequent weeks of repairs and testing paid off. There was no sign during Monday's countdown of any issue with the electrical system and the countdown ticked down to zero despite low clouds that were right at NASA's safety limit of 500 feet thick.
"If we had been another 100 or 200 feet thick, we'd still be on the ground," shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach added.
Once safely in orbit, Endeavour left behind bad memories of that first delay, as well as other drama surrounding the STS-134 mission. Everything from payload problems to Hurricane Katrina to the Arizona shootings impacted the planning at some point.
STS-134 was a late addition to NASA's shuttle manifest. Congress in 2008 approved funds for the extra flight so that the $2-billion particle physics experiment – the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer – could be delivered to the station.
The extra mission meant that NASA needed a fuel tank, so NASA turned to one that had been held in reserve after being damaged when Hurricane Katrina hit NASA's Louisiana tank factory back in 2005. The tank was subsequently repaired but still bore the scars of that damage even as it rode into space.
Only months before launch, tragic violence struck close to home for Endeavour's crew when Commander Mark Kelly's wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head during an assassination attempt that also left six people dead.
As Kelly rushed to his wife's side, NASA took the unprecedented step of naming a backup commander for the mission. But with Giffords' recovery proceeding better than anticipated, Kelly cleared to fly and, more surprisingly, Giffords was eventually cleared to attend the launch.
Her two trips here were the first for Giffords since the shooting, but, like all astronaut family members, she was kept well out of the public eye during both countdowns and the eventual launch.
Her chief-of-staff said there were several goals the congresswoman set for herself so she could witness the liftoff in person.
"She's doing really well," Pia Carusone offered. "The last couple of days were full of adrenaline and excitement. Seeing him for the last time yesterday, saying good-bye, being here in Florida. It's nice to take a break from the humdrum of the hospital."
Kelly took a moment before the launch to thank his wife and others.
"It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop," he said from the cockpit of Endeavour. "To all the millions watching today including our spouses, children, family and friends, we thank you for your support."
Endeavour is expected to spend 16 days in space on its final mission. Atlantis will fly the fleet's last mission in July.