CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Gabrielle Giffords has been through many trials since she suffered a life-threatening head wound in a shooting attack in January, but Monday's trial was different: Instead of dealing with the challenges of her own rehabilitation, the Arizona congresswoman was concerned about the risks being faced by her husband, NASA shuttle commander Mark Kelly.
So it was with a mix of excitement and pride that Giffords watched the shuttle Endeavour's launch as she sat in her wheelchair, set up on the roof of the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Then came relief.
"She looked up at me and said, 'Good stuff, good stuff,'" said Pia Carusone, Giffords' congressional chief of staff.
It fell to Carusone to describe Giffords' reaction to journalists, at a space center briefing conducted a couple of hours after liftoff. The congresswoman has forgone public appearances during her recovery, and was heading back to her rehabilitation center in Houston on Monday afternoon.
"It was a great day, obviously," Carusone said. "We've been looking forward to this for many months."
Adding to the drama
Kelly was selected to command Endeavour's mission long before January's attack at a Tucson shopping mall, but that awful event added to the drama surrounding the astronaut and the lawmaker.
A gunman started shooting during one of Giffords' meet-and-greet events for constituents, killing six and wounding 13. Giffords was the apparent target. A 22-year-old Tucson man, Jared Lee Loughner, is facing charges of murder and attempted murder in connection with the shootings.
For a while, Kelly wasn't sure whether he would stay on as shuttle commander. Carusone said she was glad he decided to stay on the mission, because that's what Giffords would want him to do. Over the past four months, Giffords has made a dramatic recovery, perhaps in part because of the motivation of seeing her husband fly safely into space.
Giffords' doctors cleared her to fly to Florida for the first launch attempt on April 29. When an electrical glitch forced a postponement, the congresswoman returned to Texas for a couple of weeks, then came back east for Monday's retry.
A day for the families
The congresswoman joined the families of Endeavour's other astronauts in pre-launch activities, under Kennedy Space Center's traditional veil of personal privacy. Early Monday morning, the families took their places at the Launch Control Center — and saw a nearly flawless launch.
"It was a real sense of relief from all of us that this went off safely," Carusone said.
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She said Kelly took Giffords' wedding ring with him into space, tucked inside a pocket of his spacesuit, as he had done before. But this time, Giffords turned the tables: "This time, she wanted his in return for hers," Carusone said. Kelly's oversize wedding ring now hangs from a chain around Giffords' neck.
Giffords also scribbled a note addressed to her husband, which was hidden aboard Endeavour for Kelly to find, Carusone said.
When Endeavour's main engines stopped firing, and the shuttle was safely in orbit, Mark Kelly's twin brother and fellow astronaut, Scott Kelly, delivered gifts from the commander — including red tulips for Giffords as well as red roses for Mark Kelly's two daughters from a previous marriage, Claire and Claudia.
"There were hugs all around," Carusone recalled.
The next steps
While Giffords is in Houston, she'll be following the mission and probably staying in touch with Mark Kelly via videoconferences and email. Carusone said it wasn't yet clear whether Giffords would return to Florida for Endeavour's landing in June — but it didn't sound likely, considering that touchdown is scheduled for the middle of the night, and that Kelly would be returning to the family home in Houston soon afterward.
Carusone said Giffords' recovery is proceeding well: "She understands, if not everything, close to everything." However, that recovery is far from complete, and Giffords still doesn't know the full story about the shootings and their aftermath.
"She is not aware of everything, but as she processes this she's learning more," Carusone said.
The next medical hurdle will be to replace a part of Giffords' skull that was removed in order to ease the swelling of her brain, Carusone said. The congresswoman will make no public appearances before that cranioplasty operation is done.
"That surgery needs to happen ... before we think about what happens after that," Carusone said.
Evil vs. good ... and love
But those who have seen Giffords up close say they're impressed by how far she's come already. "It reminds all of us of why we're so devoted to her," said Mark Kimble, an aide to Giffords who met with her this week for the first time since the shooting.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also expressed his admiration.
"Mark is finally off doing his thing, and they can stop worrying about that now," Bolden told NBC News' Tom Costello. "The fact that Gabby was able to come down here always speaks to the triumph of good over evil — and just her resilience and her dedication, and her motivation, is an example that the country ought to try to follow."
But there's more to the story of the congresswoman and the astronaut than mere good vs. evil.
"They adore each other," Carusone said. "Anyone who knows them and has seen them even recently, they are very much in love — and still newlyweds to an extent."
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