After seeing his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, through a month-long period both tragic and inspiring, astronaut Mark Kelly formally announced Friday that he was returning to NASA to resume training with the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour, which is slated for launch as soon as April 19.
His return – along with the prospect that Representative Giffords might be able to attend the launch – suggests that Endeavour's final trip to the International Space Station could be one of the most closely watched and poignant missions in shuttle history.
Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was shot and gravely wounded while meeting with constituents at a greater Tucson supermarket Jan. 8. Six people were killed and another 13 were injured before bystanders could overpower the suspect.
Kelly, a US Navy captain and commander of the April mission, took an immediate leave from the space agency to attend to his wife, casting doubt on whether he would make his fourth and final trip into space under the shuttle program, which ends later this year.
Shortly after Giffords was shot NASA assigned retired Marine Corps Col. Fred Sturckow as Kelly's replacement should he have elected to forgo the April flight. Sturckow, an astronaut who as flown four times, most recently as commander of missions in 2007 and 2009, is deputy chief of the astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
But Giffords has made a remarkable recovery so far from an injury that medical specialists say typically leaves few survivors.
"I'm pretty sure I'm done," he recalled telling her. The initial medical prognosis suggested that Giffords would remain in intensive care at the Tucson hospital caring for her for months.
Instead, her progress has been little short of stunning, and she is now in a rehabilitation hospital in Houston, where she will be undergoing an extensive array of therapies. One of her doctors called it "a one percentile kind of improvement" – essentially a 1 in 100 occurrence for people with similar injuries.
Kelly anticipates criticism
Kelly acknowledged that he may catch criticism in some circles for opting to return and resume command of the mission.
But, he added, those who think he's made the wrong choice with respect to his wife and Endeavour's mission "don't know her very well, so they don't know what she would want. She is a big supporter of my career, a big supporter of NASA. They also don't understand her condition, or the support system I have in place."
Kelly added that during her stay at TIRR Memorial Hospital in Houston, Giffords is slated to go through a rigorous, daily rehabilitation program that will keep her busy from morning to early evening.
With what he calls the strong support from his parents and his wife's, as well as the unanimous support of other family members and friends, he says he concluded that it would be best for NASA, the mission, and his family to rejoin his crew and prepare for the April launch.
NASA signed off on his return after reviewing his plans to bring himself back up to speed on the training program as well as his plans for his family while he is on orbit.
As for any input that Giffords herself may have had, Kelly declined to say whether she gave any indication for or against his return to the mission. He said he refuses to discuss specific instances of their interactions to head off speculation about her future progress – or about any setbacks that might occur.
'I know what she would want'
Instead, he said, "I know my wife very well and I know what she would want, so that makes the decision easier."
Giffords is an ardent proponent of the space program and chaired the House Science Committee's subcommittee on space and aeronautics when the Democrats held a majority in the House. Late last month the Democratic Caucus elected her ranking member of the panel.
Indeed, he says, "I have every intention that she'll be there for the launch. I've already talked to her doctors about it."
Kelly has flown three times so far, twice as shuttle pilot, and most recently in 2008 as mission commander of STS-124. During that mission, which launched May 31, astronauts delivered Japan's laboratory module Kibo and its robotic arm to the International Space Station.
His upcoming mission was to have been the last in the 30-year stretch of shuttle flights. But in late January, NASA formally added one more flight to its manifest, to launch no earlier than June 28. The mission is included in the fiscal 2011 authorization bill Congress passed at the end of its last session.
Even so, questions remain regarding how the agency will pay for it. Money hasn't been appropriated for it. Instead, the agency, like the rest of the government, is operating under a continuing resolution through March 4 that resolution holds spending to fiscal 2010 levels.