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Obama visits wounded congresswoman at space center

Image: US-POLITICS-OBAMA-NASA
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.SAUL LOEB / AFP - Getty Images

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.

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.

Astronaut Janet Kavandi, director of Flight Crew Operations for Johnson Space Center, leads US President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia, as they view the front landing gear of Space Shuttle Atlantis as they take a tour of the NASA Orbiter Processing Facility where they are preparing Atlantis for the final mission, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, April 29, 2011. SAUL LOEB / AFP

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.