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News Wrap: Space Shuttle Endeavour Blasts Off for Final Mission

May 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Space shuttle Endeavour began a 16-day flight today, the next-to-the-last for the shuttle program. The launch attracted a large crowd, including the wounded wife of the mission commander.

MAN: Four, three, two, one, and liftoff.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Endeavour blasted off at 8:56 a.m. from Cape Canaveral, Fla., its rocket boosters leaving a trail of fire and smoke, as the shuttle sliced through the clouds.

MIKE LEINBACH, NASA: Endeavour is on orbit safely. And it’s going to perform a great mission. And we will see her back here on June 1, so a great day here at the Kennedy Space Center and for the shuttle program.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A crowd estimated at 350,000 to 400,000 looked on as the spacecraft disappeared into the skies.

They included Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whose husband, Cmdr. Mark Kelly, leads the six-man crew. Giffords was shot in the head at a political event in January. She and some of her staffers were flown in from a Houston rehabilitation facility to watch the launch.

PIA CARUSONE, chief of staff for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: We were sort of speechless during this process, so there — I can’t say there were a lot of words, you know, during the — the viewing. But — but she did at the end say to me — I was sort of standing to her left, and she looked up and me and she said: “Good stuff. Good stuff.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: This was Giffords’ second trip to the Kennedy Space Center in recent weeks. Endeavour was originally scheduled for an April flight, but that was scrubbed by a problem in a key power unit. This will be Endeavour’s 25th mission. It joined the shuttle fleet after Challenger was lost in a 1986 explosion.

On this mission, Endeavour will deliver a $2 billion cosmic ray detector to the International Space Station. Scientists hope to use the device to study the origins of the universe. The shuttle Atlantis will make the program’s last flight, most likely in July.

Wall Street never got off the ground today amid concerns about European debt and unease about the U.S. economy. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 47 points to close at 12,548. The Nasdaq fell 46 points to close at 2,782.

Donald Trump will not be joining the Republican presidential field. The reality TV star and real estate magnate announced his decision in a statement today. He said he could have won, but that he’s not ready to leave the private sector. Over the weekend, another potential candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also declined to join the race.

Israel’s frontiers were calm today after a Sunday of violence that left 15 people dead. Hundreds of people crashed border barriers with Syria and Lebanon to protest Israel’s founding. Others tried to enter from Gaza. The crowds clashed with Israeli troops, who opened fire. Today, the Palestinian Authority declared three days of mourning for those killed.

Israel and the U.S. accused the Syrians of inciting the riots to divert attention from the uprising there. And, in Syria, refugees from a border town streamed into Lebanon to escape deadly shelling. Witnesses said at least eight people died there on Sunday. The Syrian army had surrounded the town last week. And thousands of people marched in a suburb of Damascus after nightfall. It was the biggest protest there in three weeks.

A war crimes prosecutor has asked the International Criminal Court to issue arrest warrants for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and top lieutenants.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo said today the regime committed crimes against humanity by targeting civilians in a crackdown against rebels.

LUIS MORENO-OCAMPO, International Criminal Court: The office was able to gather direct evidence about orders issues — issued by Moammar Gadhafi himself. The evidence shows that Gadhafi relied on his inner circle to implement a systematic policy of suppressing any challenge to his authority.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The other warrants are for one of Gadhafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, and his intelligence chief.

A bomb blast in southern Afghanistan today killed four American troops. The alliance gave no details on the attack. A total of 16 NATO soldiers have been killed so far in May.

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has had his first contact with the outside world after 43 days in detention. His wife met with him on Sunday. She said he was red-eyed and tense, but that he assured her he was physically fine. Ai was detained during a crackdown to prevent protests in the Arab world from spilling into China. The Foreign Ministry says he is being investigated for economic crimes.

Those are some of the day’s major stories.