Mark Kelly / Facebook
Photos of loved ones and other inspiration adorn Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' hospital room.
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updated 2/11/2011 4:53:54 PM ET 2011-02-11T21:53:54

The decision by veteran astronaut Mark Kelly to rejoin his crew for NASA's final flight of the shuttle Endeavour as his congresswoman wife recovers from a gunshot wound has cast an unprecedented public glimpse into the love story between a spaceman and a politician.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head Jan. 8 when a gunman opened fire while she was speaking at a constituent meeting outside a Tucson grocery store. The attack killed six and injured 13.

This Valentine's Day will find Giffords undergoing rehab in Houston. She has been recovering so quickly that her husband recently decided to resume training for his planned launch aboard the space shuttle April 19.

"The progress she has made with this injury has been nothing short of a miracle," Kelly told ABC's Diane Sawyer.

Window into astronaut's private life
Astronauts' private lives are usually kept private, with both NASA and the astronauts normally preferring to focus on the mission when speaking to the press.

"They're actually quite private and have gotten substantially more private over the last 50 or 60 years," said astronaut expert Michael Cassutt, author of the book "Who's Who in Space." "Even in the last decade, the official information that NASA puts out has gotten a bit more restricted. They'd like their private lives to stay private. They'd like their family lives to stay private."

Kelly already had a slightly higher profile than most astronauts because of his marriage to a congresswoman. Furthermore, the fact that Kelly's identical twin brother, Scott Kelly, is also an astronaut helped make him particularly notable. They are the only identical twin astronauts working today.

Yet the recent events have thrust both Kelly and Giffords into the limelight, revealing their unusual and touching relationship.

"It is an unprecedented look at one individual's, or a couple's, life, but they are not a normal couple," Cassutt told Space.com. "They're the Brad and Angelina of the astronaut office in that regard. It's a whole different level of celebrity and notoriety."

Astronaut meets congresswoman
The couple met in 2003 at a young leaders conference in China.

Though he was married at the time, and she had a boyfriend, they kept in touch. A year later when they saw each other at a second conference, he was divorced, and the two became better friends. Afterward, they would call and e-mail each other, and Giffords would even give Kelly dating advice.

In November 2004, they went on a date — to an Arizona State Prison facility, where Giffords went to learn more about the death penalty.

"That was our first date, was in death row," Kelly told ABC.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' office
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords with her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.

Yet from what might sound like an unromantic beginning, their relationship blossomed. Soon, Kelly was visiting Giffords on her congressional campaign tour, and she came to watch him launch aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 2006.

The couple married in 2007 in a ceremony reflecting both her Judaism and his Irish Catholic heritage. The wedding was held at an organic produce farm in Amado, Ariz.

"We had the combination military, mariachis, Jewish wedding. With a chuppa," Kelly said.

The astronaut, who had traveled 200 million miles above the Earth, gave Giffords a ring inscribed, "You're the closest to heaven that I've ever been."

The wedding was profiled in the New York Times wedding section.

"She had it all," Kelly said of falling in love with his wife, according to the profile. "Beautiful, smart, hard-working, balanced, fun to be with, and she laughed at my jokes."

For her part, Giffords said she started falling for Kelly when he talked of his love for his two daughters.

"When our relationship just kept getting deeper, I felt a huge sense of relief," she said. "I had found someone like me. We're both really curious. We’re focused on the same things."

Pulling for a full recovery
Kelly has described the past month as the most difficult of his life.

The veteran astronaut and Navy test pilot, who flew 39 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm, admitted that after the shooting he wasn't sure he was tough enough to handle this situation.

But the two have made it through so far, with Giffords even speaking her first words since the shooting this week when she asked to have toast with her breakfast, according to news reports

Kelly also described how his injured wife once reached up and started giving him a neck massage.

"It's so typical of her that no matter how bad the situation might be for her, she's looking out for other people," he told ABC.

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The doctors have not ruled out a complete recovery for Giffords, and that's what Kelly said he's pulling for.

And while he might wish she wouldn't return to Congress, he already anticipated her wanting to get back to work.

“I think she's such a devoted public servant that she's going to come out of this and be more resolved to fix things and make things better for people," Kelly said. "What she does is a lot harder than what I do."

Space launch ahead
Not only have recent events heightened interest in Kelly and Giffords' relationship — they've also put a spotlight on Kelly's upcoming mission.

The shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 flight was already high-profile. It is scheduled to be the last flight of the orbiter, and the second-to-last space shuttle flight before Endeavour and its sister orbiters are retired.

Kelly will launch with five crewmates on a two-week trip to deliver a billion-dollar astrophysics experiment and a load of spare supplies to the International Space Station.

He has said he's already talked to Giffords' doctors, and he intends to bring his wife to Florida to see the liftoff. That should ensure robust media attendance and a load of public attention to the mission.

"Every human interest reporter will be paying attention to it," Cassutt said. "Look at the scenarios: Giffords attends the launch – well, that's a picture you want to see. That will be a nice happy-ending story. Especially at the end of the mission when you get the picture of them together — there won't be a dry eye in the place."

You can follow Space.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Video: Giffords may attend husband’s shuttle launch

  1. Closed captioning of: Giffords may attend husband’s shuttle launch

    >>> now the latest chapter in the remarkable recovery of congresswoman gabrielle giffords . just a month after she was shot in the head, giffords has recovered enough to speak. nbc's janet shanle has details on this story.

    >> it was a simple request, just not word, actually. but when gabrielle giffords said the word "toast" during breakfast this week, it spoke volumes, answering a question that was uncertain, whether or not the congresswoman would ever be able to speak. it was a single word, but it signified an immeasurable step forward. it happened monday morning as friends were visiting with giffords in houston, where she's receiving therapy for her injuries.

    >> she was having outmeal and yogurt and she asked me for toast. she sounded great. i said, absolutely.

    >> reporter: although not her first word, it confirms what was previously uncertain. giffords can speak.

    >> she's doing speech therapy every day. she's really getting better every day.

    >> reporter: there's more news. her husband writing on giffords' facebook page "gabby's appetite is back and even though it's hospital food , she's enjoying three meals a day." when she was shot in tucson a month ago, a bullet pierced the left side of her brain, the side that controls speech, so there were questions about her ability to speak. her doctors say she continues to improve.

    >> patience is really needed. she's doing really well. we have a long way to go.

    >> even though she's in a hospital recovering from a very serious injury, she sill is offering the strength and support that she offered us before this happened.

    >> reporter: mark kelly , who has resumed his training for the space shuttle "endeavour" mission, is inspired by his wife's progress. he wrote on facebook "the doctors say she is recovering at lightning speed, but they aren't kidding when they say this is a marathon process." on wednesday, the congresswoman's office released a new photo of the congresswoman and federal judge john roll, who was killed in that january attack. they were friends. she also had some good news, the congresswoman's spokesperson, a about gabby giffords , saying they are hoping that the congresswoman may be able to attend her husband's shuttle launch of the space shuttle "endeavou "endeavour", which is scheduled for april. matt, back to you.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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