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 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.