Giffords’s appearance here to watch her husband, Mark E. Kelly, command Endeavour’s final mission added a new chapter to a remarkable saga of survival and recovery, nearly 4½ months after she was shot in the head in an attack in Tucson that left six others dead.
The couple swapped wedding rings before the flight, a twist on their usual habit of merely sending Giffords’s ring into space with Kelly. Hers is now with Kelly in low Earth orbit, along with a photograph of the couple and a note that Giffords wrote him with her left hand. She was right-handed before the shooting, but so much has changed. One thing that remained untouched, though, is her voice, Carusone said. “It sounds as it did before the shooting,” Carusone said.
Giffords observed the earth-shuddering takeoff from the rooftop of the Kennedy Space Center’s launch control center, surrounded by astronaut families she’d bonded with before the shooting turned her into an internationally known figure. “There were hugs all around,” Carusone said. Scott Kelly, her husband’s twin brother and an astronaut himself who recently returned from the international space station, brought red roses for Giffords and Kelly’s children from a previous marriage, Claire and Claudia, Carusone said.
Giffords will return Monday to Houston, where she is rehabilitating, and is not sure whether she’ll return for the planned wee-hours landing of Endeavour on June 1, Carusone said. Each move is made in consultation with Giffords, as well as her doctors, Carusone said. “She understands, if not everything, close to everything, to the point where she understands sarcastic humor,” said Carusone, who added that there is no timetable for Giffords’s return to Congress.
“Our hope is that she can return to her life both personally and professionally,” Carusone said shortly after Endeavour took off on the penultimate flight for a 30-year-old U.S. space shuttle program soon to go the way of the dinosaurs.
Endeavour is a craft born of sorrow — it was built as a replacement for the shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after launch in 1986, killing all seven crew members. But in its final flight, Endeavour’s bittersweet legacy was entwined with joy over Giffords’s rapid recuperation from the damage caused by the Jan. 8 shooting.
Reminders of Challenger are always there on launch day. The commander’s final communication was: “Roger, go at throttle up” — the standard script for every shuttle launch. And, sure enough, on Monday, anyone listening to the live feed of Endeavour’s liftoff heard a voice from the cockpit say, “Roger, go at throttle up.”