The launch of a U.S. space shuttle is never ordinary. It remains the stuff of high drama, with hundreds of thousands of people watching the liftoff from vantages around Cape Canaveral in Florida. Monday's launch of Endeavour was a bit more dramatic than most, though the reasons had more to do with history and sentiment than usual.
The flight of Endeavour is the next-to-last launch in the three-decade history of U.S. space shuttles. Discovery made its last flight in February. Atlantis will make NASA's last shuttle flight, probably in July. The trio of missions to the International Space Station close an inspiring 50-year period in the history of U.S. space exploration.
That history no doubt is part of the reason the crowd - estimated at about 400,000 - flocked to Florida to view the launch, and why millions more watched on TV. Monday's flight is a reminder that an era is ending. The desire to participate directly or indirectly in the winding down of a program marked by both disaster and triumph over the years obviously is strong.
History and scientific interest alone were not the only reasons for high interest in Endeavour's last flight. There was emotion attached to it as well. The shuttle commander, Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, is married to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head. She was wounded in a January attack by a gunman who killed six and wounded 12 in an alleged assassination attempt. One of the most enduring images of 2011 is that of Kelly holding his wife's hand in a hospital room after the shooting.
Giffords, by all accounts making a "miraculous recovery," was at Cape Canaveral for the launch, reportedly saying "Good stuff, good stuff" as the shuttle took flight. The bond between Kelly and Giffords is inspirational, a testament to the power of love. On Monday, Giffords wore Kelly's wedding ring on a chain. He carried hers with him into space.
Emotion aside, Endeavour's flight is remarkable. It is the shuttle's 25th flight, and before Monday the craft had logged more than 116 million miles, circled Earth 4,500 times, spent 283 days in space and carried 170 people into space. Its last mission is much like the others - ferrying supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. It's work as usual for the experienced shuttle crew, though as the world has learned to its sorrow nothing is ever typical when it comes to space flight.
The drama and emotion of Endeavour's last flight shouldn't overshadow discussions about the future of U.S. space flight. NASA, Congress and the White House, for example, are still unsure of the nation's next step in manned space flight. The uncertainty should end. The U.S. role should continue. As Kelly said before Monday's blastoff, "It is in the DNA of this country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop." His words should be heeded.