Rep. Giffords's husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, will command space shuttle Endeavour

The astronaut husband of wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is leaving her bedside to return to space and command the space shuttle Endeavour. (Feb. 4)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 12:00 AM

Three weeks after his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), was gravely injured in a mass shooting, astronaut Mark E. Kelly knew he was ready to command a space shuttle mission planned for April, he said Friday.

But his managers needed reassurance. So for the past week, they tested Kelly's ability to focus on the complicated mission while he spent extended time away from his wife for the first time since the shooting.

First, Kelly piloted a T-38 trainer jet, demonstrating that his basic flying skills had not waned. Then he spent four hours in a shuttle simulator with his mission's crew, practicing multiple launches and landings while operators threw malfunctions and other challenges Kelly's way. The 24-year veteran of the Navy and NASA made no mistakes.

Kelly said at a NASA news conference that his training allows him to "compartmentalize" and set aside personal worries in the face of risky missions.

"You learn to ignore stuff in your personal life," he said. "You learn to separate the mission from things that might be going on in your personal life."

Kelly did allow that he will have to work harder than usual to focus on the mission.

"This time, it might be a little more challenging to do that," he said.

When Endeavour lifts off April 19 on what is expected to be the craft's last mission, Kelly will assume responsibility for the lives of himself and five other crew members during a 14-day, multibillion-dollar mission to re-supply the international space station and deliver an astrophysics experiment. Kelly's twin, Scott, now commands the station but will be back on Earth a month before his brother lifts off.

"Mark had a very good plan" for resuming training after a month away, said Brent Jett, NASA's chief of flight crew operations. "He had a routine he explained to me, how his days would proceed, how he would commit time to the mission."

But one piece was missing, Jett said: whether the three-time space veteran could concentrate on overseeing a complicated flight plan while Giffords remained hospitalized.

"It was important for us to know he'd be able to focus while in training and not be distracted by Gabrielle's situation up at the hospital," Jett said.

Shuttle commanders undergo intensive training that ingrains laserlike focus in the face of split-second, life-and-death choices, said John Logsdon, a space policy expert at George Washington University.

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