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Giffords heads to Florida for shuttle launch

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was headed by plane from Houston to Florida on Wednesday morning in advance of astronaut husband Mark Kelly's space shuttle launch on Friday, according to her office.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was headed by plane from Houston to Florida on Wednesday morning in advance of astronaut husband Mark Kelly's space shuttle launch on Friday, according to her office.

"Gabby is looking forward to some time away from the rehab center & the chance to see @ShuttleCDRKelly launch again," said a post Wednesday morning on her Twitter account.

The outing to watch Kelly, commander of NASA's next-to-last shuttle mission, take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, marks the first extended trip the Arizona Democrat has made from a hospital environment since she was shot during a meeting with constituents at a Tucson, Arizona supermarket on Jan. 8.

His wife's trip out for the shuttle launch is "something she's been looking forward to for a long time," Kelly said. "She's been working really hard to make sure that her doctors would permit her to come. She's more than medically ready to be here, and she's excited about making this trip."

Doctors say Giffords can walk a little and is even trying to improve her gait. A report Sunday in The Arizona Republic adds the congresswoman herself is planning to "walk a mountain."

Giffords uses her left side and has begun making limited use of her right arm and leg, a common effect of a bullet wound on the left side of the brain, said Dr. Gerard Francisco, chief medical officer at Houston's TIRR Memorial Hermann who works with Giffords daily.

"Her left side is perfect," said Pia Carusone, her legislative chief of staff. "She can do whatever you can do."

She said that even in her wheelchair Giffords has stringent posture: Tall, tight, strong — like always.

Six people were killed and 13 others, including Giffords, were wounded in the Arizona shooting, when a gunman opened fire on the congresswoman and bystanders. Jared Loughner, 22, a college dropout with a history of erratic behavior, is charged with the shooting.

On Tuesday, Kelly and his all-male crew flew into Kennedy Space Center early in the afternoon, about an hour before the countdown clock started ticking at 2 p.m. ET.

Kelly was joined by his identical twin, astronaut Scott Kelly. Both wore turquoise "Gabby" wristbands.

NASA test director Jeremy Graeber said Giffords' presence — and the First Family's visit as well — would not distract the launch team. It's exciting to have so many people coming for Endeavour's final takeoff —a half-million are expected — especially first-time guests, he said.

The only downside is all the traffic tie-ups expected before and after the planned 3:47 p.m. launch. Good launch weather is forecast, and the countdown is going well.

Endeavour will carry a $2 billion international particle physics experiment known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station, along with a load of spare station parts. Over the next decade or so, the AMS will be on the watch for particle detections that could shed light on the nature of mysterious dark matter or cosmic antimatter.

Four spacewalks are planned during Endeavour's 14-day mission, which may be extended another couple of days if things go well.

This will be the 134th shuttle mission overall and the 25th for NASA's youngest shuttle. Endeavour first flew in 1992, as the replacement for the lost Challenger.

Endeavour will retire to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

The 30-year shuttle program is due to end this summer with the flight of the shuttle Atlantis.

After the shuttle fleet's retirement, NASA will initially have to rely on Russian, European and Japanese transports to carry astronauts and cargo to the space station. U.S. commercial cargo launches could begin as early as next year, and NASA is supporting the development of U.S. commercial crew transports as well.