Final journey for Shuttle sees a rebirth for Giffords

Congresswoman recovering from shooting will join Obama to watch historic mission. By Guy Adams

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The Independent Online

Like every astronaut's spouse before a mission, Gabrielle Giffords has written a "send-off" note to her husband Mark Kelly that will be tucked into his orange jumpsuit when the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from Cape Canaveral on Friday evening.

Mr Kelly has flown three previous missions during his 15-year NASA career, logging a total of 38 days in orbit. Each of the previous spousal letters that helped him on his way began with the homey salutation: "Sweetie pie". As does this.

But in many respects, this is a very different letter to its predecessors. The handwriting has changed, thanks to the fact that Ms Giffords now writes with her left, rather than her right hand. Sentences are written in a shorter, less-complex style of prose. It's been three and a half months since the Congresswoman was shot in the head during a Saturday morning "meet and greet" outside a supermarket in Tucson.

Since that day she has been confined largely to a ward at the TIRR Memorial Hospital in Houston, where close friends, family and an elite team of doctors and neurosurgeons are monitoring her recovery.

Tomorrow's launch will provide a high-profile landmark in the battle to return to full health. Her medical team have given permission for Ms Giffords to travel to Florida for the big event. In her first public outing since the tragedy, she is expected to join a crowd of thousands, including President Barack Obama, in bidding farewell to Endeavour and its six-strong crew.

"It's something she's been looking forward to for a long time," Mr Kelly told reporters yesterday.

"She's been working really hard to make sure that her doctors would permit her to come. She's more than medically ready to be here and she's excited about making this trip."

Pia Carusone, the Congresswoman's Chief of Staff, added yesterday that her boss had boarded a private jet in Houston. "We haven't taken off, but we're at the airfield," she said. Ms Giffords is said to have smiled to her fellow passengers and described her general mood prior to the journey east as: "Awesome."

Yet even without the completion of this remarkable tale of human endurance, there would scarcely have been a dry eye in the house at Cape Canaveral tomorrow night.

Endeavour mission STS-134 will not just open a new chapter in the story of Gabrielle Giffords, it will also mark the end of a historic era in space exploration. After almost a billion miles and three decades of boldly going, the space shuttle is being shuffled off into retirement. Endeavour's final 12-day trip, which will see it deliver a particle physics experiment to the International Space Station, will end with the craft being transported to the California Science Centre in Los Angeles, where it will become an exhibit.

Rob Varley, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, predicted 700,000 visitors. "There was nearly a half-million here for the last launch," he said. "So I have no doubt, especially with the fact that the Congresswoman is going to be here and Obama is coming in."