Astronaut Tour
Bill Clark  /  Roll Call Photos file
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., center, she gives a tour of Statuary Hall in the Capitol to Shuttle Discovery STS-124 astronauts Mission Specialist Akihiko Hoshide, of Japan, and her husband Commander Mark Kelly on Thursday, July 17, 2008.
By
updated 4/28/2011 7:13:04 PM ET 2011-04-28T23:13:04

It's a sight many Americans would surely love to see: a recovering Rep. Gabrielle Giffords watching as her astronaut husband blasts off into space.

But it's unlikely they will see it. Giffords will attend Friday's space shuttle launch in Florida but watch in private, and her staff says there are no plans to release photos of her, though that could change.

Why is the congresswoman, whose recovery from catastrophic wounds has inspired so many, being kept out of public view?

First of all, it's long-standing NASA policy for all relatives at a shuttle launch. "It's just for privacy," said spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. "They are here in a private capacity."

Sometimes family members choose independently to make themselves available, she said, but most decide not to.

"They're not the spotlight," added space center spokesman Allard Beutel. "They're not the public figure."

Of course, Giffords is a special case. There's extraordinary public interest in her progress since that horrific Jan. 8 assassination attempt in Tucson, Ariz., and in the simultaneous story of husband Mark Kelly's journey into space — a life-vs.-career dilemma like no other.

Details about Giffords' condition in the 3½ months since she took a bullet to the head have been sparse. There have been no photos showing her face. A grainy video image purporting to show her slowly climbing stairs to board the plane for Florida earlier this week was the most visible and hopeful sign yet of her improvement.

Few would argue with a patient's right to privacy, even a public figure and officeholder like Giffords. But her neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Lemole, added another dimension to the privacy argument when asked recently if it wouldn't be beneficial for the public to see the effects of the shooting.

"I understand that would be useful to the public, but I also understand that a picture is worth a thousand words, and with those words would come rampant speculation," he told the Association of Health Care Journalists earlier this month. "If you release one picture, people start speculating on what you will or won't do, on what you can or can't do."

Lemole, of University Medical Center in Tucson, added that when he performs brain surgery, the patient may have a swollen eye at the beginning and a bruise at three months, and then, at six months, look like someone who never had brain surgery at all.

"Perhaps the congresswoman, after all is said and done, after she recovers as well as she will, may release (photos) as sort of a retrospective documentary, and maybe that would be valuable," he said. But that, he made clear, lies well into the future.

Giffords had a piece of her skull removed shortly after the shooting to allow room for brain swelling and has been wearing a helmet adorned with an Arizona state flag. Doctors said they expect to reattach the piece in May.

Earlier this week, The Arizona Republic quoted her staff as saying she speaks in single words or simple declarative phrases, she has short hair with scars showing through, and her face is sometimes swollen but basically looks the same. Those close to her also said she can stand on her own and walk a little.

The congresswoman arrived in Cape Canaveral on Wednesday, leaving behind the Houston hospital where she has been undergoing rehab for the past three months. When she watches the shuttle Endeavour lift off Friday afternoon, it will surely be her husband's last mission in space. NASA is retiring the shuttles with one final flight in June.

"It's something she's been looking forward to for a long time," Kelly said of his wife's trip. "She's more than medically ready to be here."

Since the congresswoman's arrival, her whereabouts have been kept secret. A staff member said in a Twitter update Thursday morning that Giffords was enjoying Florida and "all the space action."

Giffords also was believed to have attended Wednesday night's family barbecue, a closed-door event.

NASA officials said they still didn't know where Giffords or President Obama — and his wife and two daughters — would view the launch. The congresswoman was expected to be in the general area of the presidential entourage.

Online, there seemed little if any criticism of the decision to shield Giffords from view.

"She should NOT be exposed to the public if she doesn't feel comfortable with it — it should be her decision!" Nancy Younce Volmer, a retired university administrator who lives in Warsaw, Ky., wrote in a typical comment on Facebook.

Another consideration was Giffords' physical and emotional well-being at the launch, noted Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

"You don't know how someone's going to react to all those people and all that movement," Helmke said. "We're talking about a serious, traumatic injury that happened less than four months ago. You wouldn't want to do anything in terms of crowds, cameras or questions that could possibly affect her condition. I'm sure that's what her doctors and family are concerned about."

Helmke noted that it has been just over 30 years since James Brady, a former press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, was shot in the head in an assassination attempt on his boss. Even now, he said, Brady has good days and bad ones, easy ones and difficult ones.

Besides, noted many, isn't there stress enough watching a spouse leave the planet?

"Things are tense enough with no injury at all," Helmke said.

To be sure, a photo of Giffords would be newsworthy. "This is a moment people have been waiting for," said Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., a journalism think tank.

But, he noted, the desire to know needs to be balanced against considerations of the congresswoman's well-being and the risk that people will draw premature conclusions about her condition. A solution, he added, might be a photo that is not overly invasive or revealing of specific details of her medical condition.

Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein and Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Giffords takes giant step

Photos: Former Ariz. Representative Gabrielle Giffords

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  1. Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot and left handicapped after a gunman opened fire at an event in Tucson, Ariz., and her husband retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly prepare to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 2013. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, leave the Newtown Municipal Building in Newtown, Conn. on Jan. 4, 2013. Giffords met with Newtown officials on Friday afternoon before heading to visit with families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. (Michelle Mcloughlin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Gabrielle Giffords waves to the Space Shuttle Endeavor with her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly as it flies over Tucson, Ariz. on its way to Los Angeles, on Sept. 20, 2012. Kelly served as Endeavour's last space commander months after Giffords survived serious head injuries because of a 2011 shooting. (P.K. Weis / Southwest Photo Bank via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Gabrielle Giffords blows a kiss after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance during the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. on Sept. 6, 2012. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Gabrielle Giffords stands on top of a peak in the French Alps with her husband Mark Kelly, right,, and mountain guide Vincent Lameyre, July 23, 2012. On her first trip out of the country since her injury in 2011, she rode a two-stage cable car to a station for spectacular views of Mont Blanc. (Denis Balibouse / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Ron Barber, right, celebrates his victory with Giffords, left, prior to speaking to supporters at a post election event, Tuesday, June 12, 2012, in Tucson, Ariz. Barber, Giffords' former district director, won her seat in a special election after she resigned to focus on her recovery. (Ross D. Franklin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Democratic Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, read Rep. Gabriell Giffords resignation speech on the House floor on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012. The day after President Obama's State of the Union speech, Giffords formally offered her resignation to Speaker John Boehner. Weeping, Shultz applauded the strength of her friend and colleague, "I'm so proud of my friend." (MSNBC) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. President Barack Obama hugs retiring Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as the president arrives to deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., left, and Pelosi, right, posing with Giffords husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly of the Navy, at his retirement ceremony with Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. (House Leader Nancy Pelosi's office / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returns to the House for the first time since she was shot, making a dramatic entrance on Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, during a crucial debt vote. She drew loud applause and cheers from surprised colleagues. (NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords poses for a photo the day after the launch of NASA space shuttle Endeavour and the day before she had her cranioplasty surgery, outside TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital May 17, in Houston, Texas. Aides of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords posted two recent photos of the congresswoman to her public Facebook page, the first since the January 8 shooting that killed six people and wounded a dozen others. (P.K. Weis / Giffords Campaign / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Emergency workers use a stretcher to move Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head outside a shopping center in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011. (James Palka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. In this Jan. 5, 2011 file photo, House Speaker John Boehner re-enacts the swearing in of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Susan Walsh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Rep. Giffords, left, speaks during a candidates debate with Republican candidate Jesse Kelly at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., on Oct. 18, 2010. Kelly is an Iraq War veteran and was the Tea Party favorite for the 8th congressional district seat. (Joshua Lott / The New York Times via Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords meets with constituents in Douglas, Ariz., in 2010. Giffords, 40, took office in January 2007, emphasizing issues such as immigration reform, embryonic stem-cell research, alternative energy sources and a higher minimum wage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Rep. Giffords speaks during a press conference in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress called on the President to secure the border with the National Guard on April 28, 2010. (James Berglie / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. This picture provided by the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Monday, March 22, 2010, shows damage to her office in Tucson, Ariz. The congressional office was vandalized a few hours after the House vote overhauling the nation's health care system. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., center, gives a tour of Statuary Hall in the Capitol to Shuttle Discovery STS-124 astronauts Mission Specialist Akihiko Hoshide, of Japan, and her husband, Commander Mark Kelly, on Thursday, July 17, 2008. (Bill Clark / Roll Call Photos) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. From right. Rep. Ken Calvert, Rep. Dennis Moore, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and Rep. Heath Shuler, attend a House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security hearing on current and proposed employment eligibility verification systems on May 6, 2008. The hearing provided a forum for lawmakers on both sides of the immigration debate, focusing on a system to verify the legal status of workers and job applicants. (Scott J. Ferrell) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Gabrielle Giffords with U.S. Navy Cmdr. Mark Kelly, a NASA astronaut, at their wedding in Amado, Ariz., on Nov. 10, 2007. Kelly's twin brother, also an astronaut, is a commander on the International Space Station. "We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station. As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not," said Scott Kelly of the tragedy that befell his sister-in-law. (Norma Jean Gargasz for The New York Times / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Representatives-elect including Dean Heller, top right, and Gabrielle Giffords, next to Heller, prepare for the freshman class picture for the 110th Congress on the House Steps on Nov. 14, 2006. (Tom Williams / Roll Call Photos) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords rides horseback in 2006. In an interview with NPR last year, she recalled working with horses during her adolescence in Tucson. "I loved cleaning out the stalls, and I did that in exchange for riding lessons. And I continue to ride most of my life. And I learned a lot from horses and the stable people ... I think it provided good training, all of that manure-shoveling, for my days in politics ahead." (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A page entitled, "Just do it!" in La Semeuse, the Scripps College yearbook in 1993. The photo at right shows Giffords in traditional Mennonite clothing. That same year, she won a Fulbright award to study Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups in Northern Mexico. Gifford's senior thesis was titled "Wish Books and Felt-Tipped Fantasies: The Sociology of Old Colony Mennonite Drawings." (Scripps College) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Gabrielle Giffords' senior portrait from the 1993 Scripps College yearbook. Giffords double-majored in Latin American studies and sociology. A Dean's List student, Gifford won several awards during her time at Scripps. (Scripps College) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Gabrielle Giffords, right, laughs with her mom, Gloria Kay Fraser Giffords, in a photo published in the Scripps College yearbook. Gabrielle received a B.A. in Sociology and Latin American history from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. in 1993. (Scripps College) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. University High School portrait of Gabrielle Giffords, class of 1988. Dr. John Hosmer, taught history to the future lawmaker. He tells msnbc.com, "Gabrielle sat in the front row. She was inquisitive ... She was a very mature person from the moment she walked in the door." (University High School) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: US Senate holds hearing on Gun Control
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    Above: Slideshow (26) Former Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
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