Houston: NASA's space shuttle Endeavour had a picture-perfect liftoff on Monday from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre on the next-to-last flight of the shuttle era before heading to retirement at a Los Angeles museum. (Agencies)
Endeavour roared off the launch pad at 8:56 a.m. ET carrying a six-member crew to the International Space Station (ISS).
Endeavour is the baby of NASA's shuttle fleet. It was built to replace the Challenger, lost in a 1986 launch accident.
Endeavour first flew in 1992 — it ended its first mission 19 years ago on Monday. The shuttle has flown 116.4 million miles in 24 previous flights.
The shuttle's liftoff was watched by more than the usual number of physicists. That's because Endeavour is carrying up a USD 2 billion particle physics detector known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS).
The AMS will be mounted onto the ISS, where it will collect cosmic rays — charged particles that zoom through space — for a decade.
The equipment was designed to search for primordial antimatter created during the Big Bang, and the mysterious dark matter that makes up much of our universe.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pushed for more than 16 years to make the project happen, raising money to build it with the help of hundreds of researchers in more than a dozen countries. Ting said no one knows what the AMS might discover.
"I mean, if you find what you predicted, it's not interesting," he said in an April interview. "The interesting thing is to destroy the current idea, to find something new."
NASA is retiring its three remaining space shuttles after 30 years to concentrate on interplanetary travel.
The space agency wants to hand over the business of getting crews and cargo to the space station to private companies. At least one company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., said it can get astronauts to the space station within three years of getting NASA approval.
One final mission remains by Atlantis in July. As many as half a million people were expected to gather in the area around the Kennedy Space Centre to watch as Endeavor streaked into space one last time before heading to retirement.
Among them was mission commander Mark Kelly's wife, Arizona lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords — recovering after being gravely wounded in a shooting rampage in Tucson earlier this year.
"Who's ready for the best show on Earth?," Giffords' staff said in a Twitter update hours before liftoff.
Ahead of the liftoff, Kelly and his five crewmates had waved, gave a thumbs-up and shook their fists in the air as they headed to the launch pad in the pre-dawn hours.
"Good to be aboard," Kelly told launch controllers. They posed at the base for a group picture, before taking the elevator up and climbing into Endeavour.
"Took my last shower for a few weeks," astronaut Mike Fincke reported in a tweet. "The flight docs gave a good look-over. My only issue: too much boyish enthusiasm. (no known cure)."
Pilot Gregory Johnson said in his own Twitter update, "I am really excited and charged up for this mission! Slept great."
NASA had spent the past two weeks replacing a switch box with a blown fuse as well as a suspect thermostat, and installing new wiring.
Giffords, who flew in yesterday from Houston, where she's undergoing rehabilitation for a gunshot wound to the head, was among 45,000 guests were expected to watch the liftoff at the launch site.
An additional 500,000 spectators were likely to jam area roads and towns to send off Endeavour and her crew. Sisters Anita and Andrea Johnson drove across the state from Tampa for a front-row view.
"We usually stand in our backyard to watch the launches but this time we wanted to see it up close and personal," Johnson said as she pulled lawn chairs out of her car parked across the Indian River in Titusville, Fla.
To the south toward Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, recreational vehicles and cars already were lined up along the Banana and Indian rivers late yesterday.
And signs outside area businesses cheered Endeavour on with messages of "godspeed" and "go."
Houston: NASA's space shuttle Endeavour had a picture-perfect liftoff on Monday from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre on the next-to-last flight of the shuttle era before heading to retirement at a Los Angeles museum.