NASA braces for Giffords, Obama, huge launch crowd

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords left hospitals behind Wednesday for the first time since her tragic shooting nearly four months ago and traveled to NASA territory for the next-to-last space shuttle launch with her husband in command.

“Gabby is looking forward to some time away from the rehab center & the chance to see Captain Mark Kelly launch again!” Giffords’ staff posted on her Facebook page.

Space shuttle Endeavour is due to blast off Friday afternoon with Kelly at the helm. It will be Endeavour’s final voyage after 19 years of spaceflight, as the shuttle era nears the end.

NASA managers said they’re thrilled to host Giffords, even though her presence requires a little extra care and attention. She flew by NASA jet from Houston to Florida’s Space Coast, a day behind the other astronauts’ wives and children.

“She’s NASA family,” said Mike Moses, chairman of the mission management team.

Since she was critically wounded in the Jan. 8 shooting, the Arizona congresswoman has been in hospitals — first in Tucson, Ariz., and then in Houston for rehabilitation. NASA was staying mum on Giffords’ whereabouts. Her staff confirmed her departure from Houston for Florida.

The other VIP — President Barack Obama — will arrive on launch day. He’ll bring his wife and two daughters in what will be the first visit by a first family for a launch. Only two other sitting presidents have ever witnessed a manned launch: Richard Nixon for Apollo 12 in 1969 and Bill Clinton for John Glenn’s return to orbit in 1998 aboard shuttle Discovery.

With only two space shuttle launches remaining, everyone, it seems, is jostling for a front-row seat.

An estimated 40,000 guests are expected at Kennedy Space Center on launch day. Outside the gates, the crowd is expected to be the biggest in years, if not decades.

Between 500,000 and 750,000 people are expected to jam roadways for the 3:47 p.m. Friday liftoff. That’s nearly twice the crowd that descended for Discovery’s last launch in February.

Hundreds of additional journalists have already dropped into Kennedy Space Center, with satellite trucks and temporary trailers filling every available spot at the NASA press site.

Giffords’ shooting during a meet-and-greet in Tucson and her rehabilitation in Houston — home to Kelly and the rest of NASA’s astronaut corps — have overshadowed the details of Endeavour’s flight.

Endeavour and its six-man crew are bound for the International Space Station. They will deliver a $2 billion physics experiment and a load of spare station parts. Four spacewalks are planned during the 14- to 16-day mission.

Good weather is forecast for the launch: an 80 percent chance.

No public appearances or statements by Giffords are planned. She will return to her rehab hospital in Houston soon after the launch, according to her staff.

The 40-year-old congresswoman was expected to join in the traditional barbecue with all six astronauts and their immediate families Wednesday evening. The secluded beach house, enjoyed by astronauts during countdowns, is on restricted government property.

Giffords will watch the launch in private — as do all crew families. She saw her husband’s shuttle launch in 2006, before they were married, and again in 2008.

Almost certain to be at her side: brother-in-law Scott, her husband’s identical twin. He, too, is an astronaut and, in fact, is just back from his own space station mission.

Her two teenage stepdaughters, from Kelly’s previous marriage, also will be there.

Giffords has not been seen publicly since she was shot in the head, and has been relearning how to speak, walk and take care of herself. In recent newspaper and TV reports, her doctors and husband said she speaks slowly, using single words or phrases, and can stand on her own and walk a little. She is using her left hand to write because she has limited use of her right side.

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