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Final space shuttle Endeavour flight delayed

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Space shuttle Endeavour launch delayed
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Giffords expresses disappointment at delay in launch
  • Endeavour's final mission has been delayed by 72 hours
  • U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was scheduled to watch her husband's shuttle launch
  • The shuttle will carry a $1.5 billion device to capture space particles

Kennedy Space Center, Florida (CNN) -- The final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour was delayed Friday, temporarily putting off what promised to be an emotional moment for the mission's commander.

Liftoff -- originally scheduled for 3:47 p.m. ET -- was delayed by at least 72 hours due to concerns with the shuttle's heating system.

As part of NASA's examination of the problem, the shuttle's external fuel tank will be drained of its oxygen and hydrogen propellants.

"The engineering team did not understand how this problem occurred and did not feel comfortable proceeding with a launch attempt," NASA spokesman George Diller said.

Cmdr. Mark Kelly's wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, traveled to Florida to watch the shuttle's ascent.

President Obama and the first lady also went to the launch site, and Obama personally visited with Giffords for about 10 minutes, a White House official said.

President meets with Giffords

Obama also met the entire Endeavour crew, including Kelly.

"I bet you were hoping to see a rocket launch today," Kelly told the president.

"We were hoping to see you," Obama told him.

Kelly updated Obama and the first lady on Giffords' condition, and then they went down the corridor to see her, the administration official said.

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Three months ago, Giffords was nearly killed when a would-be assassin shot her in the head during a meeting with constituents in Tucson, Arizona. It was not immediately clear if Giffords' doctors -- who are overseeing her lengthy rehabilitation -- will allow her to remain in Florida for the duration of the delay.

Giffords' office said Friday that her travel plans are "undetermined," according to a statement.

"Congresswoman Giffords is disappointed that Endeavour was unable to launch today, but realizes that mission safety must come first. Launch delays are not uncommon with the space shuttle," the statement said. "We are looking forward to the quick rescheduling of this scientifically important mission. The congresswoman was pleased, however, to have been able to meet with President Obama and the first family."

Space shuttle: What have we learned?

Kelly was tapped to lead a crew that includes pilot Gregory Johnson; mission specialists Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff and Andrew Feustel; and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori.

Endeavour has logged more than 103 million miles in space, blasting off 24 times, but its 25th flight will be its last.

As NASA's shuttle program winds down with the last launch scheduled this summer, many in the astronaut corps are wrestling with what to do next. For the foreseeable future, Russian rockets will be the only way for U.S. astronauts to get to space.

Fincke spent a total of a year in space on the International Space Station, getting there and back twice on Russian rockets. But Friday's delayed flight will be his first on the shuttle.

"I think all of us, with all the changes that are going on, with our country's space program and NASA, all of us professional astronauts are looking into our hearts to see what we're going to do next," Fincke said.

Four spacewalks are planned for the mission. The space walkers will retrieve experiments, install new ones, refill tanks and lubricate parts at the International Space Station.

In its cargo bay, Endeavour will carry the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. At $1.5 billion, it is the most expensive piece of equipment a space shuttle has ever carried.

The spectrometer is designed to capture space particles like anti-matter and dark matter that scientists know very little about but believe exist in the universe. The spectrometer will be mounted outside the International Space Station. If it's successful, it could lead to a better understanding of how our universe began and evolved.

A few months ago, before his wife was shot, Kelly talked about his upcoming mission.

"Flying in space is a very difficult thing to give up," Kelly said. "I remember after my last flight thinking 'Well, maybe this is the last time I'm gonna do this.' And, you know, you go a couple of months out and you're like, 'Oh, I really hope this is not the end of my flying career.'"

Kelly said that when STS 134, the Endeavour's last flight, is over, "I'll be thinking the same thing, I can't really give this up. I've got to figure out a way to get back into space."

CNN's John Zarrella, Eric Fiegel, Danielle Dellorto and Michael Martinez contributed to this report.

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