- Associated Press - Thursday, March 31, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - Space shuttle commander Mark Kelly said Thursday he’s still awaiting doctors’ blessing to bring his wounded congresswoman wife to his launch in just under three weeks.

NASA, meanwhile, took stock of minor damage to Kelly’s shuttle on the launch pad as severe thunderstorms swept through Kennedy Space Center. Lightning struck early Wednesday evening, and there were reports of hail. Gusts reached 90 mph. On Thursday morning, two funnel clouds were reported as the severe weather continued.

Shuttle Endeavour’s external fuel tank sustained minor damage to some of its insulating foam, said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel. Launch pad workers were waiting for the latest storm to pass, before carrying out a full inspection. The space center was under a tornado watch Thursday morning, and Kelly and his crew had to skip some of their practice countdown drills.

Kelly, the husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head 2 1/2 months ago in Tucson, Ariz., said he’s still working out all the plans with NASA, in case his wife attends his launch. He’s still debating what to do about the traditional prelaunch party for his guests.

Each shuttle crew member arranges a party for family and friends who descend on Cape Canaveral for the launch. The astronauts themselves are in quarantine and cannot attend; spouses stand in as hosts.

In Kelly’s case, his identical twin astronaut brother, Scott, could fill in. Scott is just back from a five-month stay at the International Space Station.

“I’ve been asked that a number of times, and I’ve been pretty busy,” Kelly said at a news conference.

“I haven’t put it together yet. So if you’re willing to organize it for me, I think we might have a volunteer,” he joking told an Associated Press journalist. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Kelly told reporters he’s “pretty hopeful” Giffords will make it to his April 19 liftoff. It will be Endeavour’s final flight and the next-to-last shuttle mission, and will feature the delivery of a $2 billion physics experiment to the International Space Station.

As he did last week at a press conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Kelly asked that questions be about the two-week mission. He gave a brief update on his wife _ “don’t have final approval from her doctors yet, but we are pretty hopeful that she may be able to get down here” _ before taking questions from the roomful of reporters as thunder boomed outside.

Giffords is undergoing rehab at a Houston hospital.

Thursday morning’s question-and-answer event was supposed to take place at the launch pad, but was moved indoors because of the severe weather.

Astronaut Mike Fincke said Kelly has provided “great leadership” for the crew. Being a commander, Fincke said, is often a thankless job “and then you add a particularly difficult family situation.”

“We’re a team. We’re a family, and from what we’ve seen so far, I don’t think there’s anything out there that we can’t handle,” said Fincke.

All six astronauts assigned to the flight _ five American men and one Italian _ are space veterans.

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