Giffords’s spouse to command shuttle

By Brian Vastag and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post / February 5, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Three weeks after his wife, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was gravely injured by a would-be assassin, astronaut Mark Kelly knew he was ready to command a space shuttle mission planned for April, he said yesterday.

But his managers needed reassurance. So for the last week, they tested Kelly’s ability to focus on the complicated mission while spending extended time away from his wife for the first time since the shooting.

First, Kelly piloted a T-38 trainer jet, demonstrating that his basic flying skills had not waned. Then he spent four hours in a shuttle simulator with his mission’s crew, practicing multiple launches and landings while operators threw malfunctions and other challenges his way. The 24-year Navy and NASA veteran made no mistakes.

Kelly said at a NASA press conference yesterday that his training allows him to “compartmentalize’’ and set aside personal worries in the face of risky missions. “You learn to ignore stuff in your personal life, you learn to separate the mission from things that might be going on in your personal life,’’ he said. But, he said, “This time, it might be a little more challenging to do that.’’

When Endeavour lifts off on April 19 on what is expected to be the craft’s last mission, Kelly will assume responsibility for the lives of himself and five other crew members during a 14-day, multibillion-dollar mission to resupply the International Space Station and deliver an astrophysics experiment to the orbiting facility. Kelly’s twin brother, Scott, commands the station; he will be back on Earth a month before his brother lifts off.

Kelly said the decision was unanimous, with Giffords’s family and Kelly’s managers at NASA all offering unwavering support.

“We had a discussion,’’ Kelly said when asked whether Giffords supported his return to flight training. Kelly declined to provide details on his wife’s condition but said: “I know her very well. She would be very comfortable with the decision I made.’’

In the days after the attack in Tucson in which six people were killed and Giffords was shot through the head, Kelly planned to give up his seat on Endeavour, he said, as her doctors expected a lengthy stay in the intensive care unit. Instead, after just 12 days, Giffords had improved enough to be moved to TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, near the Johnson Space Center where astronauts train.

“Since then, she’s made progress every day,’’ Kelly said.

Prosecutors in Arizona announced yesterday that Jared Loughner, identified by authorities as the gunman, will not face state charges until his federal trial is completed. He has been indicted on three charges of attempted murder in the wounding of Giffords and two of her aides. More federal charges are expected to follow.