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Husband: Giffords would embrace flight decision

- Associated Press - Friday, February 4, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) - 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 or whether she can communicate.

"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, Ariz., supermarket. His choice to lead space 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?"

Within two weeks, Giffords was transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston, and that's when he started reconsidering. He weighed how much time he could spend with her, and how much he needed to be with his crew at Johnson Space Center on the outskirts of Houston.

"So that's a debate I had with myself," he said. The fact that she's 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.

Kelly said any critics of his decision don't know his wife.

"She is a big supporter of my career, a big supporter of NASA," he said.

Giffords' bullet wound was devastating. Though doctors described her early progress as remarkable, they have said very little about her condition. Houston doctors are not giving updates.

In the first several days after the shooting, she gave a thumbs up and was able to stand with help. She massaged her husband's neck, picked out colors on an iPad and playfully took the ring off a nurse's finger. Friends and Kelly described her as able to understand them.

But rehab experts say her progress will be slow, and the head of the hospital where she's staying said doctors will help her reach "a new normal."

No one has yet reported that Giffords has spoken or made sounds. She can swallow and breathe on her own and follows commands to lift an arm or a leg.

Kelly said a doctor told him she's doing better than 99 percent of other people with this type of injury. He said he's not providing any updates on her condition to avoid speculation by strangers.

"It's not something I feel comfortable talking about," 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.

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Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn reported from Cape Canaveral, Fla. AP writer Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix and video producer Tom Ritchie in Washington contributed to this report.

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Online:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/shuttle

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