A space shuttle took flight for the next-to-last time as US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, still recovering from a gunshot wound and hidden from public view, watched her astronaut husband rocket through the clouds in a deafening roar.
Ms Giffords and the other crew families were described as awe-struck and silent on the rooftop of the launch control centre.
“Good stuff, good stuff,” she said from her wheelchair when it was quiet again, according to a congressional aide.
Ms Giffords joined the other five astronauts’ wives and children on top of the Kennedy Space Centre building to watch Endeavour’s last voyage as Nasa winds down the 30-year-old shuttle programme.
After lift-off, there were hugs all around, the aide said.
Endeavour disappeared so quickly into the clouds that the launch manager apologised later to the hundreds of thousands who jammed nearby roads and towns.
Ms Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, is Endeavour’s commander and his twin astronaut brother, Scott, gave red tulips to Ms Giffords once he safely reached orbit.
Mr Kelly carried her wedding ring into space, which he has done in the past. This time, she wanted something back: his ring to stay on Earth. She had it around her neck on a silver chain from an Arizona jewellery store that included a heart and an Arizona map.
“She was very proud. She’s always proud of Mark,” Giffords chief of staff Pia Carusone said at a press conference.
Ms Giffords has difficulty speaking, but Ms Carusone said Ms Giffords’ comment after the launch was one of the congresswoman’s oft-used expressions.
That Ms Giffords would watch the shuttle launch seemed improbable a little more than four months ago. The would-be assassin shot her in the head, critically wounding her, killing six people and injuring 12 others at a political event in her hometown of Tucson, Arizona.
The bullet pierced the left side of Ms Giffords’ brain, affecting speech and movement on her right side.
Her doctors have said she has made remarkable progress in what will be a long recovery.
The tragic event made the relatively unknown congresswoman and astronaut America’s sweethearts, Gabby and Mark. And it drew attention to what became known as the Mark Kelly flight once he made the decision to fly while she continued rehab.
The lift-off 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.
This time the countdown was close to perfect, and the launch made up in sound what it lacked in visuals.
This is the 25th and final flight of Endeavour, the baby of Nasa’s shuttle fleet. It was built to replace Challenger, destroyed during lift-off 25 years ago this past January, and made its maiden journey six years later to capture and repair a stranded satellite. That first flight ended 19 years ago yesterday.
Endeavour carried the first Hubble Space Telescope repair team, which famously restored the observatory’s vision in 1993, and the first American piece of the space station in 1998.
It will end its days at the California Science Centre in Los Angeles. Nasa’s last shuttle flight, by Atlantis, is targeted for July.