Giffords leaves hospitals behind to watch husband’s shuttle launch

Mark Kelly took a month off from training for the launch to be with his wife immediately after the shooting in Tucson. Mark Kelly took a month off from training for the launch to be with his wife immediately after the shooting in Tucson. (Chris O’Meara/ Associated Press)
By Marcia Dunn
Associated Press / April 28, 2011

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Representative Gabrielle Giffords left hospitals behind yesterday for the first time since her tragic shooting nearly four months ago and traveled to NASA territory for the next-to-last space shuttle launch, which will be commanded by her husband.

“Gabby is looking forward to some time away from the rehab center & the chance to see Captain Mark Kelly launch again!’’ Giffords’ staff posted on her Facebook page.

Space shuttle Endeavour is due to blast off tomorrow afternoon with Kelly at the helm. It will be Endeavour’s final voyage after 19 years of spaceflight, as the shuttle era nears the end.

NASA managers said they are thrilled to host Giffords, even though her presence requires a little extra care and attention. She flew by NASA jet from Houston to Florida’s Space Coast, a day behind the other astronauts’ wives and children.

“She’s NASA family,’’ said Mike Moses, chairman of the mission management team.

Since she was critically wounded in the Jan. 8 shooting, the Arizona congresswoman has been in hospitals — first in Tucson and then in Houston for rehabilitation. NASA was staying mum on Giffords’ whereabouts. Her staff confirmed her departure from Houston for Florida.

The other VIP — President Obama — will arrive on launch day. He will bring his wife and two daughters in what will be the first visit by a first family for a launch. Only two other sitting presidents have witnessed a manned launch: Richard Nixon for Apollo 12 in 1969 and Bill Clinton for John Glenn’s return to orbit in 1998 aboard shuttle Discovery.

With only two space shuttle launches remaining, everyone, it seems, is jostling for a front-row seat.

An estimated 40,000 guests are expected at Kennedy Space Center on launch day. Outside the gates, the crowd is expected to be the biggest in years, if not decades.

Between 500,000 and 750,000 people are expected to jam roadways for the 3:47 p.m. liftoff. That’s nearly twice the crowd that descended for Discovery’s last launch in February.

Hundreds of additional journalists have already dropped into Kennedy Space Center, with satellite trucks and temporary trailers filling every available spot at the NASA press site.

Giffords’ shooting during a meet-and-greet in Tucson and her rehabilitation in Houston — home to Kelly and the rest of NASA’s astronaut corps — have overshadowed the details of Endeavour’s flight.

Endeavour and its six-man crew are bound for the International Space Station. They will deliver a $2 billion physics experiment and a load of spare station parts. Four spacewalks are planned during the 14- to 16-day mission.

Good weather is forecast for the launch: an 80 percent chance.

No public appearances or statements by Giffords are planned. She will return to her rehab hospital in Houston soon after the launch, according to her staff.

The 40-year-old congresswoman was expected to join in the traditional barbecue with all six astronauts and their immediate families last evening. The secluded beach house, enjoyed by astronauts during countdowns, is on restricted government property.

As for Kelly, he remains “very, very focused,’’ said launch director Mike Leinbach. Kelly left flight training after the shooting. He returned to work in Houston after a monthlong leave.

Giffords will watch the launch in private — as do all crew families. She saw Kelly’s shuttle launch in 2006, before they were married, and again in 2008.

Almost certain to be at her side: hey brother-in-law Scott, who is her husband’s identical twin. He us also an astronaut and is just back from his own space station mission.

Her two teenage stepdaughters, from Kelly’s previous marriage, will also be there.

It is likely that the Obamas will be positioned near the congresswoman, who is said to be making remarkable progress with every passing day. Her doctors formally approved her trip to Florida on Monday.

Giffords has not been seen publicly since she was shot in the head. She has been relearning how to speak, walk, and take care of herself. In recent newspaper and TV reports, her doctors and husband said she speaks slowly, using single words or phrases, and can stand on her own and walk a little. She is using her left hand to write because she has limited use of her right side.