Astronaut Mark Kelly's somber mission

By Jason Horowitz and Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 10, 2011; 10:27 PM

In May 2008, congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was anxious.

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."

According to Giffords's colleagues in Washington, Kelly's self-assurance allowed him to let his wife shine. At a Democratic retreat in 2006 for new members of Congress, the couple was something of a hit.

"Captain Kelly and Gabby were at a luncheon with my wife and kids," said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.). "And my daughter at the time was 12. She has never stopped talking about the day she got to meet an astronaut."

Despite the couple's impressive resumes, friends described them as unusually down-to-earth.

"They can go from the most elaborate dinners to being in regular clothes, having a burger and watching movies," Tijerina said. "If you didn't know who they were, you wouldn't ever guess what either of them did for a living."

"A few weeks ago we were all in Vegas together," said Fertitta, who owns the Golden Nugget casino and had arranged backstage passes to a Clint Black concert. Most of the group lined up for pictures with the country star, but "Gabby, in her typical fashion, was over talking to the band members."

Last week, the couple shared pizzas at the D.C. restaurant Matchbox with friends, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) and her husband, Jonathan. In a statement, Gillibrand spoke of Kelly's "strong character and brave nature," but also said the couple was fun to be around. At the dinner, Gillibrand listened to Giffords, a practicing Jew, talk about their recent trip to Rome and how moved she and her husband were to watch Pope Benedict XVI celebrate Christmas Mass.

Since the shooting, Kelly, who is scheduled to fly the final planned mission for America's shuttle program in April, has kept his comments to a minimum.

"Many of you have offered help," he wrote in a message on his wife's government Web site. "There is little that we can do but pray for those who are struggling."

But his twin brother, Scott Kelly, currently on the International Space Station, broadcast a message to Mission Control: "As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not."

"These days, we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions, but also with our irresponsible words," he said.

"We're better than this. We must do better."

Then he led a moment of silence.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company