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Personal Tragedy Overshadows Upcoming Endeavor Flight

April 25, 2011

No one could have predicted after the tragedy in Tucson just a few months ago, that Arizona representative Gabby Giffords would be in Florida watching her husband Mark Kelly pilot the second-to-last space shuttle into orbit. Physicians have cleared Giffords to travel to Cape Canaveral, to watch the liftoff live, the Associated Press (AP) reports.

Giffords continues to recover from her brain injury and Kelly’s devotion to both his wife and NASA has overshadowed Endeavour’s final voyage and the shutting down of the shuttle program. “They’re America’s sweethearts,” Susan Still Kilrain, a former space shuttle pilot told AP’s Marcia Dunn.

Kelly planned on being beside his recovering wife for, “maybe two, four, six months.” That’s what her trauma surgeon and neurosurgeon warned him in the hours after the shooting. “I’m pretty sure I’m done,” he told his boss, chief astronaut Peggy Whitson.

Co-pilot Gregory Johnson and his crewmates didn’t know whether Kelly would fly the last Endeavour mission or whether the flight might be delayed. A backup commander stepped in to keep the training on schedule.

Giffords, however, made steady progress as time went on. Her previous good health, great care “and maybe a little bit of luck” contributed to her swift improvement, Kelly said. “Or maybe people really thinking about her and praying for her.”

Kelly’s aunt is a Catholic nun, and this has resulted in plans for Pope Benedict XVI to make the first papal call to space during Endeavour’s mission.

After a month long leave, Kelly returned to training in February at Johnson Space Center, bringing his wife with him to Houston for rehab. “It’s what she would have wanted,” he assured journalists.

Giffords began walking and talking more, completing short sentences. She also began to take stock of what had happened to her after Kelly informed her that she had been shot.

Prior to the shooting, the two split their time among Texas, Arizona and Washington, spending time together on as many weekends as possible. The tragedy brought them together practically every day, until last Friday when Kelly and his crew went into quarantine as is customary before a space flight.

Giffords will very likely be kept out of public sight at the launch, as she has been ever since the shooting occurred. Commander Kelly will face the cameras when he arrives Tuesday with his crew at Kennedy Space Center, and again on launch day.

This second-to-last shuttle mission, STS-134, will be the twenty-fifth and final flight for Endeavour, which was built to replace the Challenger and first soared in 1992. This will be the fourth shuttle flight for commander Kelly.

Even the Nobel laureate whose $2 billion science experiment will be delivered to the ISS by the Endeavour crew doesn’t seem to mind that his project is being overshadowed by the personal drama. “I have great admiration for Commander Kelly,” said physicist Samuel Ting. “It takes great courage for him to do this. Really, it takes total dedication to do this.”

A crew member for STS-133 was injured in a bicycle crash just weeks before liftoff and had to be replaced. This is just an example, astronauts point out, that all space shuttle missions have distractions: divorce, child concerns and other family issues, health matters, etc., that take place all the time, even in the rarefied atmosphere of space flight.

NASA officials insist the latest distraction will not affect the launch or the two-week long flight, which will be a complicated mission with four spacewalks. “I’ve talked to Mark extensively on it, and he is completely focused on the mission and ready to go,” shuttle program manager John Shannon told AP.

Endeavour astronaut Mike Fincke said Kelly has set a good example for the crew, all veteran space fliers. “He’s able to compartmentalize and he’s also able to count on us as his crewmates, while he’s dealing with the things that he needs to deal with,” Fincke told Dunn. “Mark doesn’t need to worry. The mission’s going to get done.”

And, of course, Giffords herself is an inspiration. “She’s on a path to recovery,” said crewmate Andrew Feustel, “and that is, I think, allowing us all to just carry on and get done what we need to get done.”

Image Caption: STS-134 Commander Mark Kelly attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, occupies the commander’s station during a training session on the flight deck of the Full Fuselage Trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA/JSC

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