Image: Obamas and astronauts
Saul Loeb  /  AFP - Getty Images
President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, speak with Endeavour commander Mark Kelly (far right) and other members of the shuttle crew during a visit to Launch Control Center Firing Room 1 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 4/30/2011 3:23:20 PM ET 2011-04-30T19:23:20

Even though they missed seeing a shuttle launch, President Barack Obama and the wounded congresswoman whose husband is an astronaut had a brief private meeting on Friday, NASA and the White House said.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who survived an assassination attempt in January, journeyed to Florida this week from her Texas rehabilitation center to see the start of a shuttle mission commanded by her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly. Obama and his family were scheduled to watch the launch as well, marking the first time that an entire First Family has seen a shuttle take off.

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Endeavour's liftoff was delayed due to problems with a heater system on the shuttle, but the Obamas flew to Florida anyway and took a tour of Kennedy Space Center. The White House said Obama saw Giffords for about 10 minutes before meeting with Kelly and the rest of the shuttle crew. Bob Cabana, Kennedy Space Center's director, confirmed the meeting.

Kelly greeted Obama in a corridor at the center's Launch Control Center, saying: "I bet you were hoping to see a rocket launch today."

Obama replied: "We were hoping to see you."

The two men shook hands and embraced. Obama chatted casually with the astronauts, at one point asking whether it was really possible to see the Great Wall of China from space.

"I can answer this one," said Endeavour astronaut Mike Fincke, who spent two stints on the International Space Station in 2004 and 2008-2009. Fincke explained to the president that the wall can't be seen from orbit, but the Great Pyramids of Egypt can.

Later, Fincke gushed about the meeting in a Twitter update: "The president stopped by to say hi to our crew and our families. Wow."

The astronauts are technically in quarantine for their space mission, which means they're supposed to have limited access to visitors. Cabana said the Obamas were given a clean bill of health by NASA doctors. Obama joked about the checkup during his visit, addressing some of his remarks to onlookers behind the cameras: "Who is coughing, by the way?" he asked. "Stay away from my astronauts. Don't think I didn't hear that."

The families of the astronauts typically stay out of public view in the days leading up to a launch, and Giffords' case is particularly sensitive because of her injuries. Giffords was shot in the head on Jan. 8 in Tucson, Ariz., during a shooting attack that left six dead and wounded 12 others. Virtually no pictures of her have been publicly released since the shooting.

Giffords' nurse and other staff members traveled with her to Florida, and she reportedly is continuing her rehabilitation routine during her travels. It's not clear how long she will remain in Florida, considering that Endeavour's launch has been delayed until Monday at the earliest.

Image:
SAUL LOEB  /  AFP - Getty Images
Astronaut Janet Kavandi, director of Flight Crew Operations for NASA's Johnson Space Center, leads President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia past the shuttle Atlantis' front landing gear during a tour of one of NASA's orbiter processing facilities on Friday.

Cabana said the Obamas couldn't make it back to the Cape for a Monday launch, but the president and his wife, Michelle, signaled that they haven't yet given up on seeing the shuttle take flight.

"One more chance, we may be able to get down here," President Obama was heard saying during Friday's visit.

"It's a priority for us," Michelle Obama added.

During a speech delivered at the space center a year ago, the president called for the cancellation of NASA's Constellation Program, which was aimed at sending humans back to the moon. "I just have to say pretty bluntly here, we've been there before," he said at the time. That led some to question the president's commitment to human spaceflight. But on Friday, Cabana said Obama "promised his support and told us to look to a good future."

In addition to the president and his wife, the White House entourage included the couple's two daughters, 12-year-old Malia and 9-year-old Sasha. Video clips provided by NASA showed the First Family touring the orbiter processing facility where the shuttle Atlantis is being prepared for its final mission, now scheduled for June. While they were at the facility, the president's daughters were treated to a science demonstration involving the shuttle's thermal protection tiles.

The president's three-hour space center visit was wedged between a stopover in storm-ravaged Alabama earlier in the day, and an evening commencement address at Miami Dade College.

"I think he really enjoyed it, and I know his family did," Cabana said.

More from Cape Canaveral:

This report includes White House pool reports about the Obamas' visit.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: Giffords' docs, NASA talk length of launch delay

  1. Closed captioning of: Giffords' docs, NASA talk length of launch delay

    >>> this afternoon's launch of the space shuttle "endeavour" was postponed until at least monday at the earliest. the reason, a heater failure. but president obama went ahead with his planned trip after touring the tornado damage in alabama. we're waiting to see if the president will meet with congresswoman gabrielle giffords who as i mentioned is at the kennedy space center . she went there to watch the launch of her husband mark kelly . janet shamlian joins us live from houston . janet , is there any word yet on her situation? obviously people are wondering if she'll be able to stay in florida or if it's necessary for her to return to houston ?

    >> reporter: tamron, good afternoon. the hospital has released no yftion at this time, and it's likely because they may not have made that decision yet because as we know the shuttle launch is moved back to at least monday. it seems likely that her doctors are conferring with officials at nasa to see what the length of time might be. we know she traveled to the kennedy space center on wednesday so she's already spent two nights there. they feel comfortable there's a place for her to stay. but do they want her long from the rehab facility for that length of time. if they feel the launch may go off monday, it's possible that she'll stay at the cape, spend a few more nights there, and see her husband launch on the space shuttle "endeavour" as the commander. but, tamron, if it's going to be longer than that, it seems there's a chance they would bring her back because she still has a long road to go in houston .

    >> what i imagine, janet , and i don't want to put you in a situation to speculate, but i would mack imagine that they knew this was a possibility. anything is possible.

    >> reporter: absolutely. they knew it was a possibility because it seems like it happens perhaps 50% of the time. they just haven't released that information yet. it seems possible that they're still deciding and kind of taking measure of when the shuttle will go up.

    >> janet shamlian --

    >> but we know for sure she's going to return to the facility and for a continued period of reh rehab.

    >> it's a great facility certainly they have her in. thank you very much, janet .

Photos: The life of space shuttle Endeavour

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  1. Special delivery

    Endeavour was the last space shuttle to join NASA's fleet: It was built to replace the shuttle Challenger, which was lost in an explosion shortly after launch in 1986. This view shows Endeavour perched atop a modified Boeing 747 on May 2, 1991, beginning the ferry flight from Palmdale, Calif. - where the shuttle was built - to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First liftoff

    Endeavour lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 7, 1992, beginning its first mission. The STS-49 mission's primary task was the repair of the Intelsat VI telecommunications satellite. Endeavour was the only shuttle to make its maiden flight from Pad 39B. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grab that satellite!

    Endeavour astronauts Richard Hieb, Thomas Akers and Pierre Thuot hold onto the 4.5-ton Intelsat VI satellite after making a six-handed "capture" on May 13, 1992. The satellite failed to rise above low Earth orbit when it was launched in 1990. During Endeavour's maiden mission, astronauts retrieved the satellite, attached it to a new upper-stage booster and relaunched it to its intended geosynchronous orbit. This mission marked the first time that three people from the same spacecraft walked in space at the same time. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Science in space

    Endeavour astronauts Jan Davis, left, and Mae Jemison prepare to deploy the lower body negative pressure apparatus on Sept. 15, 1992. Scientific research was the main focus of this Spacelab-J mission, also known as STS-47. The mission's crew included the first African-American woman to fly in space (Mae Jemison) and the only husband-and-wife team to go into space together (Jan Davis and Mark Lee). (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fixing Hubble

    Astronauts flew on Endeavour to take on the first Hubble servicing mission in December 1993. In this picture, spacewalkers Story Musgrave and Jeffrey Hoffman perform an orbital ballet. The coastline of western Australia is visible below. The complex and highly successful repair mission allowed Hubble, which was launched with a defective mirror, to see into the universe with unprecedented clarity. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Building the station

    Endeavour spacewalker Jim Newman holds onto the International Space Station's Unity connecting module as he removes covers and works on connecting cables on Dec. 7, 1998. The STS-88 flight marked the shuttle fleet's first space station assembly mission. (AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Erroneous endeavor

    The shuttle Endeavour sits on its launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 11, 2007. "Endeavor" is spelled incorrectly on the banner. The shuttle was named after the HMS Endeavour, the British sailing ship that carried Captain James Cook on his first voyage of discovery from 1768 to 1771. That's why Endeavour reflects the British spelling of the word. (Eliot J. Schechter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Spacewalkers at work

    During the first spacewalk of the STS-118 mission, on Aug. 11, 2007, astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Canada's Dave Williams (out of frame) attach a new segment of the International Space Station's truss and retract a collapsible radiator. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Class portrait

    The crew members of Endeavour's STS-118 crew pose for their official portrait on Aug. 8, 2007. From left are Rick Mastracchio, Barbara Morgan, pilot Charles Hobaugh, mission commander Scott Kelly, Tracy Caldwell, Canadian astronaut Dave Williams and Alvin Drew. During this flight, Morgan became the first educator astronaut to go into orbit. In 1986, she was the backup for Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who died in the Challenger explosion. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great view

    Endeavour spacewalker Rick Mastracchio relocates communications equipment on the International Space Station during an outing on Aug. 15, 2007. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A gouge in the tiles

    Tiles on the underside of the space shuttle Endeavour show evidence of damage in a photo taken on Aug. 12, 2007, using the shuttle's robotic arm and a camera-tipped extension boom. The close-up imagery helped mission managers determine that the gouge would pose no threat during Endeavour's atmospheric re-entry. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Eye of the hurricane

    Crew members aboard the shuttle Endeavour captured this picture of Hurricane Dean's eye in the Caribbean on Aug. 18, 2007. The STS-118 mission ended on Aug. 21, one day earlier than planned, to avoid potential complications due to the storm. Forecasters worried that Hurricane Dean could have swept over Houston around the time of landing - but in the end, the storm took a different course. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. In control

    NASA Administrator Michael Griffin watches the liftoff of the space shuttle Endeavour from the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 14, 2008. The STS-126 mission delivered two spare bedrooms as well as a second kitchen and bathroom to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Repairs at the pad

    Workers perform repairs on the shuttle Endeavour's external fuel tank at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad on June 14, 2009. The launch team detected a leak of hydrogen fuel from the tank, forcing a delay in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. The mission's main task was the delivery of the final segment of Japan's Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station. (Tim Jacobs / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lightning strikes

    A giant bolt of lightning hits Endeavour's Florida launch pad on July 10, 2009. Technical problems and severe weather forced five delays in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. (Gene Blevins / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Liftoff at last!

    The space shuttle Endeavour rises from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on July 15, 2009, on the STS-127 mission's sixth launch attempt. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Parting glance

    The space shuttle Endeavour is photographed from the International Space Station soon after its departure on July 28, 2009. A Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station is visible in the foreground. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Twilight of the shuttle

    The shuttle Endeavour is silhouetted against different layers of the sunlit atmosphere during its approach to the International Space Station on Feb. 9, 2010. The primary payloads for Endeavour's STS-130 mission were the Tranquility module and the Cupola observation deck and control station. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Check out this view!

    Astronaut George Zamka, Endeavour's commander for the STS-130 mission, peeks out a window of the International Space Station's newly installed Cupola observation deck on Feb. 19, 2010. The Cupola provides an unparalleled view of Earth below. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Tanks for the memories

    The external fuel tank for Endeavour's final mission, STS-134, is transported to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 14, 2010. STS-134's main payload is the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an international physics experiment. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The view from above

    The space shuttle Endeavour is lowered into place for attachment to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 1, 2011. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Greeting the day

    The sun rises as photographers gather on a hill to take pictures shortly after the shuttle Endeavour's arrival at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on March 11, 2011. (Roberto Gonzalez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Into the clouds

    Photographers track the space shuttle Endeavour's ascent as it pierces the clouds and disappears after launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. (Craig Rubadoux / Daytona Beach News-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Godspeed, Endeavour!

    Spectators react as the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. Hundreds of thousands of people watched the start of the next-to-last space shuttle flight. (Scott Audette / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Above the clouds

    Stefanie Gordon captured this remarkable picture of the space shuttle Endeavour rising above Florida's cloud cover on May 16 while she was on a commercial flight from New York to Palm Beach, Fla. (Stefanie Gordon / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The last spacewalk

    NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff holds a handrail during the fourth and last spacewalk conducted by the shuttle Endeavour's crew at the International Space Station on May 27. Chamitoff and astronaut Michael Fincke (visible in the reflections from Chamitoff's helmet visor) transferred an inspection boom system, completing U.S. assembly of the station. The May 27 outing marked the last scheduled spacewalk to be conducted by a space shuttle crew. (Nasa T.V. via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Night passage

    Backdropped by a nighttime view of Earth and the starry sky, the space shuttle Endeavour is seen docked to the International Space Station on May 28. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Landing in the dark

    The space shuttle Endeavour lands for the last time at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 1, 2011. The touchdown capped Endeavour's 16-day mission to deliver a $2 billion science experiment to the International Space Station on NASA's next-to-last shuttle flight. (Joe Skipper / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Blastoff into history

    A NASA poster pays tribute to Endeavour and its space missions over the past two decades. The shuttle is shown rising to orbit, with patches for each of its missions laid out in a spiral. The HMS Endeavour, which inspired the spaceship's name, is shown at lower right. At upper left, pictures of Endeavour are framed in the windows of the Cupola. The background image depicts the nebula NGC 602 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, which was first serviced by Endeavour in 1993. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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