Poignant lawmaker-astronaut farewell at shuttle launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Jean-Louis Santini- A wounded US lawmaker and her astronaut husband traded wedding rings before he boarded the space shuttle Endeavour on Monday to command its final flight, a spokeswoman said.
Red roses, a handwritten letter, a picture and a song request were also part of the poignant farewell between shuttle commander Mark Kelly and congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in January.

Seated in a wheelchair, wearing Kelly's wedding band on a chain around her neck, longtime space fan Giffords watched along with other astronaut spouses as Endeavour blasted off toward the International Space Station.
"Good stuff," were the congresswoman's words after watching the launch, said her assistant, Pia Carusone.
Giffords, 40, has been going through a grueling rehabilitation program at a Houston hospital after a bullet tore through the left side of her brain during a shooting at an outdoor event in her home state of Arizona that killed six other people.
But once it was apparent that she was doing well in rehab, Giffords and Kelly decided he could make one last trip into space -- an important milestone in his own star-studded career with NASA -- and that she would be there to see it.
For the couple, married since 2007 and both dedicated to their careers as well as to each other, it was the obvious decision.
"They exchanged rings," Carusone told reporters, describing their last encounter before the launch. "Mark brought her wedding ring the last two launches. This time, she wanted his."
Giffords also handwrote a note, which has been hidden on the shuttle for her husband to read later, and Kelly brought along a photograph of the two of them.
Staffers promised to divulge later the name of the song she chose to wake up the crew.
The pair would be able to talk while Kelly is in space via videoconference, Carusone said.
Giffords has been unable to return to work but has maintained an active presence on Facebook and Twitter via her staff.
After liftoff, her Facebook page contained a picture of red roses she was given on behalf of Kelly by his twin brother and fellow astronaut, Scott Kelly.
"A family affair: Moments after main engine shut off, Scott gave these gifts from Mark to Gabrielle & his daughters," said the status update.
No pictures have been released of the lawmaker, who had major surgery on her skull and is said to be working diligently to regain movement on her right side.
Carusone said Giffords's voice sounds the same as it used to, and she understands almost everything that is going on around her, even sarcastic humor.
However she is still in the dark on some of the details surrounding the shooting, in which a lone gunman barged into her meeting with local voters outside a grocery store and killed six people, including a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge.
"She is not aware of everything," said Carusone. "As she processes this, as anyone would, she has learned more."
The Endeavour is set to return from its 16-day space journey on June 1, and Carusone said Kelly would certainly have special plans to mark Giffords's 41st birthday on June 10.
According to staffer Mark Kimble, who recently spent time with Giffords after not seeing her since the January shooting, her courage was "extremely inspirational."
"It reminds all of us why we are so devoted to her and why we enjoy working for her," he told reporters.
"To actually see her and talk with her, it was a very moving experience."

Tuesday, May 17th 2011
Jean-Louis Santini

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