Giffords' husband will pilot shuttle

Giffords' husband will pilot shuttle

February 5th, 2011 by Associated Press in Local - Breaking News

HOUSTON - The astronaut husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords said Friday his wounded wife would embrace his decision to rocket into space in two months and he expects her to be well enough to be at his launch.

Space shuttle commander Mark Kelly refused to say whether the congresswoman took part in his decision and declined to go into details about her condition.

"I know her very well and she would be very comfortable with the decision that I made," Kelly told reporters.

His decision, announced Friday, comes just four weeks after Giffords was shot in the head outside a Tucson supermarket. His choice to lead shuttle Endeavour's final voyage was made easier, he said, by his wife's rapid progress in rehab.

The 46-year-old astronaut said he never imagined in the immediate aftermath of the shooting that he would ever fly the two-week mission. He immediately quit training after the Jan. 8 shooting.

Kelly said he told her mother there was no way he'd leave Giffords' side. Gloria Giffords responded, "What, are you kidding me?"

"So that's a debate I had with myself," he said. The fact that his wife is busy all day in rehab was key, he added.

Kelly said their parents, siblings and his teenage daughters were "completely unanimous." "Everybody felt that this was the right thing for me to do," he said.

When asked if Giffords might be well enough to attend his launch, he replied: "Absolutely. I have every intention that she'll be there for the launch. I've already talked to her doctors about it."

Giffords, 40, was meeting with constituents when she was gunned down. Six people were killed and 13 were injured in the rampage; a 22-year-old suspect is in custody.

Kelly's space mission will be Endeavour's final flight and the fourth for him. He will lead a veteran, all-male crew to the International Space Station.

A Navy captain, he entered the astronaut corps in 1996, along with his identical twin Scott, who's currently circling the planet as the space station commander.

Two astronauts now in management positions sat at Kelly's side during the 47-minute news conference, televised live on NASA TV. They had chosen a backup commander just in case. After Kelly approached them a week ago about rejoining his crew, they discussed it with NASA flight surgeons as well as Giffords' doctors. They told him to wait a week and try easing back into training, to see how it would feel being apart from his wife. He flew training jets twice this past week, did a four-hour launch simulation and even went out of town.

In the end, NASA officials agreed he was ready to return to the shuttle commander's seat. Chief astronaut Peggy Whitson explained that it's better to fly someone who's been training for the past 18 months, like Kelly has, than to plug in someone new.

There's considerable training between now and the April 19 launch target date, almost certainly with long hours and few days off for the crew. The six astronauts will go into quarantine a week before the launch, with limited access to family.

Kelly acknowledged that he considered what would happen to Giffords and the rest of his family if he died on the mission.

"Spaceflight is a risky business. Apparently so is being a member of Congress. We each take risks everyday in our lives," he said.

He assured his bosses he will not change his mind about flying, no matter what happens between now and then. When he resumes training Monday, he'll face a longer work commute. He's moved into a friend's home in downtown Houston to be closer to Giffords' hospital. As for when he's in orbit, he said he'll make do with e-mail updates and his mother-in-law will make any necessary decisions about his wife's care while he's gone. By then, his brother will be back home and lending support.

The mood in the news auditorium at the space center was subdued. Before the event began, Kelly read over some note cards and sipped water. He took no questions from any of the 20 gathered journalists once the news conference ended, quickly leaving the room.

He wore a blue wrist band that bore a peace sign, a heart and the name "Gabby."

Kelly's mission already was set to be one of the highest profile shuttle flights ever. It will be Endeavour's last voyage and the next-to-last for the entire 30-year shuttle program. The shuttle will deliver a $2 billion physics experiment by a Nobel Prize winner.

Endeavour was originally scheduled to launch last July, but was bumped into 2011 because the experiment wasn't ready.

A former colleague of Kelly's said she respects his choice.

"I'm not going to second-guess his decision for anything," said former space shuttle pilot Susan Still Kilrain. "I'm sure it's the decision that Gabby would have wanted him to make."

Susan Hileman, who was wounded in the Tucson shooting, was also supportive. She was holding 9-year-old Christina Green's hand when the gunfire erupted. The girl was killed.

"I'm sure this decision was ... right for him and for them," said Hileman, who was shot three times. "He's kind and thoughtful and he loves his wife as much as my husband loves me, which is a lot, and we're both lucky women to have such strong men in our lives."

Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, who performed the marriage ceremony for Giffords and Kelly in 2007, said the couple has been communicating but she did not elaborate. They have a strong history of supporting one another, she noted.

"My sense is that he sat with her and they made the decision together," Aaron said.