Image: Roses and gifts
Office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
After the space shuttle Endeavour's main engine cutoff, flowers and cards were delivered by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as well as to Claire and Claudia Kelly, her stepdaughters. Scott and Mark Kelly are twin brothers.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 5/16/2011 2:50:45 PM ET 2011-05-16T18:50:45

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."

More from Cape Canaveral:

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Video: Giffords watches husband’s final launch

  1. Closed captioning of: Giffords watches husband’s final launch

    >>> and a day full of emotion at the kennedy space center as recovering congresswoman gabby giffords watched her husband's last scheduled launch into space.

    >> four, three, two -- and liftoff for the final launch of "endeavour." expanding our knowledge, expanding our lives in space.

    >> it was a picture perfect blastoff for shuttle "endeavour's" last mission. it is headed to the international space station with billions of dollars in research equipment and a los angeles museum will be its home once it is retired. congresswoman giffords was eager to tell the world about the launch tweeting good morning, who is ready for the best show on either? pia is gabby giffords chief of staff and was with the congresswoman for the launch. thank you for joining me.

    >> no problem.

    >> how did it feel to be there with your boss?

    >> it was terrific. it was a beautiful day here at kennedy space center , and we saw the shuttle blast off. you know, it created a beautiful streak in the sky and the noise was obviously loud and, you know, really nice mood up on the roof this morning on the launch control center . the congresswoman was there with the other spouses and her mother, mark's daughters and his brother scott. it was a great day all around.

    >> we always hope for the best and wanted her to be there and we know that there was the delay of the initial launch. i don't know, in the back of your mind did you just think, maybe this won't come true? it's too wonderful to come true in a sense and then it becomes a reality.

    >> yeah. for sure. and this morning when there was some cloud cover at 7:30 a.m . this morning, we weren't sure whether or not the shuttle would actually go. this might get scrubbed again. until it actually happens, you know, you wonder whether or not it's actually going -- they're going to light the rocket and send it off.

    >> so much is out of your control. tell me a little bit about congresswoman's -- her recovery thus far. we've heard she started to walk. obviously, this was an incredible trip for her to make. where does she stand now in her recovery as you have watched her these many weeks now?

    >> well, she's doing very well. she's continuing her rigorous program in houston. they've got her on a busy schedule every day of physical and speech and cognition therapy and it's really making a difference. and this trip to florida, this weekend and for the first launch attempt two weeks ago, are really not breaks in her therapy. it's just a different type of therapy because she's moving around in different environments. she's meeting new people. so it's challenging in a new way, and we've really seen her respond very well. she's happy to be here and, you know, there's a lot of adrenaline and excitement running through the whole astronaut family right now.

    >> thank you for giving us an account of what you witnessed today. a picture perfect day and we were all happy that it went off without a hitch. thank you so much, pia.

Interactive: Endeavor's final mission

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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