Endeavour blasts into orbit for NASA’s second-last shuttle flight

ENDEAVOUR blasted off on NASA’s next-to-last shuttle flight, thundering through clouds into orbit as the mission commander’s wounded wife, Gabrielle Giffords, watched along with an exhilarated crowd estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

NASA is winding down its 30-year-old shuttle programme before embarking on something new.

The event generated the kind of excitement seldom seen on Florida’s Space Coast on such a grand scale — despite a delay of more than two weeks from the original launch date because of an electrical problem.

The shuttle quickly disappeared into the clouds.

“That was four seconds of cool,” said Manny Kariotakis, who was visiting from Montreal. The 50-year-old got goosebumps watching the liftoff with thousands along Highway 1 in Titusville.

Just before launching, commander Mark Kelly thanked all the who put hands “on this incredible ship”.

“It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop,” said Kelly, who also thanked “all of the millions watching today”.

Remarkably, Giffords made a return visit to see Kelly off. She is still undergoing rehabilitation in a Houston hospital to recover from a gunshot wound to the head in an assassination attempt little more than four months ago.

The Arizona congresswoman was shielded from the cameras on launch day, as were the families of the other five astronauts. All watched the liftoff in private.

Giffords has kept out of the public eye since the January 8 shooting that wounded her and killed six in Tucson, Arizona.

With Kelly at the helm, Endeavour and its experienced crew of five Americans and an Italian are headed for the International Space Station. They will arrive at the orbiting outpost tomorrow, delivering a $2 billion (€1.4bn) magnetic instrument that will seek out antimatter and dark energy in the universe.

Up to 45,000 guests jammed into NASA’s launch site, and thousands packed area roads and towns to see Endeavour soar one last time. Only one shuttle flight remains.

VIPs included Apollo 11’s Michael Collins and four other members of Congress.

Estimates had put yesterday’s crowd at 500,000.

Electrical trouble grounded the shuttle on April 29, disappointing the hordes of visitors, including President Barack Obama and his family. Repairs over the past two weeks took care of the problem.

This is the 25th and final flight of Endeavour, the baby of NASA’s shuttle fleet. It will end its days at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

NASA’s last shuttle flight, by Atlantis, is targeted for July. Once Atlantis flies, it will be three years — at best — before Americans are launched again from US soil. Some NASA observers fear it could be a full decade.

The White House wants NASA focusing on eventual expeditions to asteroids and Mars, unfeasible as long as the shuttles are flying given budget constraints.

Planet life

* A PLANET 20 light years away is the first outside the Solar System to be officially declared habitable by scientists.

The “exoplanet” Gliese 581d has conditions that could support Earth-like life, including possible watery oceans and rainfall.

Yet any future space voyagers landing there would find themselves in truly alien surroundings.

The sky is likely to be murky red, not blue, and gravity is twice what it is on Earth, doubling the weight of anyone standing on the surface.

In addition, the planet’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere would almost certainly not be breathable by humans.

Scientists were surprised by the discovery because Gliese 581d was previously ruled out as a habitable planet candidate.

But a new computer model capable of simulating extraterrestrial climates has confirmed Gliese 581d really could harbour life.

Scientists believe the findings could pave the way to more discoveries of potential havens for life among the stars.

Dr Robin Wordsworth, a member of the French team from the Institut Pierre Simon Laplace in Paris, said: “This discovery is important because it’s the first time climate modellers have proved that the planet is potentially habitable, and all observers agree that the exoplanet exists.

“The Gliese system is particularly exciting to us as it’s very close to Earth, relatively speaking. So with future generations of telescopes, we’ll be able to search for life on Gliese 581d directly.”

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