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Astronaut Mark Kelly's somber mission

Space shuttle Discovery commander Mark Kelly, husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, right, gestures as he walks with his twin brother astronaut Scott Kelly, left, and mission specialist Ron Garan, after arrival at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in May 2008.
Space shuttle Discovery commander Mark Kelly, husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, right, gestures as he walks with his twin brother astronaut Scott Kelly, left, and mission specialist Ron Garan, after arrival at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in May 2008. (AP)

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 10, 2011; 10:27 PM

In May 2008, congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was anxious.

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It was the eve of her husband Mark Kelly's third outer-space mission, but the first shuttle launch of their marriage.

"There was definitely angst, there was obvious worry," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a close friend of the couple who attended the pre-launch party and stayed in contact with Giffords throughout Kelly's orbit. "There have been two shuttles that have not come back."

Now, days after a gunman shot Giffords in the head and wounded 19 others, six of them fatally, it is Kelly who sits by her bedside, waiting for his wife to come back to him.

"He is very strong," said Wasserman Schultz, who spoke with the astronaut on Monday afternoon. "He is using all the strength that he has for her. He is using all his optimism to propel her towards recovery."

In Washington, a town with no shortage of power couples, Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly have offered something more. She, a brilliant and engaging businesswoman-turned-politician with a lovely smile, a passion for motorcycles and a remarkable capacity for work. He, a gifted pilot who joined NASA with his twin brother and inscribed on his bride's ring, "You're the closest to heaven that I've ever been."

Friends describe them as two adventurous and kindred spirits whose initial meeting seven years ago on a cultural exchange trip to China eventually led to a romance that endured between time zones and atmospheres. Giffords, 40, lived in Washington and Tucson, while Kelly, 46, and his two daughters from a first marriage remained in Houston.

"They just made it work," said Tilman Fertitta, the family friend in Houston who lent Kelly his plane to fly to Giffords immediately after the shooting. He said that Kelly had popped over to the District last week to dine with his wife and that Giffords often stole away to Houston, even if only for a night. "They grab those days when they can," he said.

"They don't get nearly the time together that they might like," said Wasserman Schultz, who added that the two lived their marriage like an "extended newlywed relationship."

Doug Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, who has known Giffords since the the mid-'90s, said that when Giffords spoke of Kelly in the run-up to their November 2007 wedding, "you could just see the joy in her face."

Both admired each other's work. During Giffords's hard-fought congressional campaign, she became known for cramming multiple political events into a day but squeezed in a trip to Florida to watch her then-boyfriend's shuttle launch.

"They compliment each other all of the time," said Robert Tijerina, another family friend in Houston, who often barbecues for the couple at his home. "She speaks of her admiration for flight, her love of NASA and space. And, of course, he admires and respects what she does."


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