POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 21, 2011
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. >> President Barack Obama and his family will attend next week’s launch of Endeavour, NASA’s next-to-last space shuttle flight commanded by the husband of critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
A White House official said Wednesday that the president would be at the April 29 liftoff, along with wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha. That prompted Giffords to say: “Awesome.”
Commander Mark Kelly will lead the six-man shuttle crew to the International Space Station. He has said he hopes his wife will be there when he blasts off, and is awaiting her doctors’ final approval.
Giffords, a Democrat from Arizona, was shot in the head during a meeting with constituents in Tucson on Jan. 8. Kelly took a month’s leave to be at her hospital bedside, then returned to Houston to resume flight training. She’s now at a Houston hospital undergoing extensive rehab.
NASA already has been working on security and other issues surrounding Giffords’ possible attendance at Kennedy Space Center. She will be in a restricted area, well out of the public eye. It was not immediately known whether the Obamas would be with the congresswoman for the 3:47 p.m. liftoff.
Obama had already planned to be in Florida later that day to give a commencement address at Miami Dade College.
Only two sitting presidents have witnessed a manned rocket launch. President Richard Nixon was on hand for the Nov. 14, 1969, launch of Apollo 12 to the moon. President Bill Clinton and his wife saw Sen. John Glenn fly aboard shuttle Discovery on Oct. 29, 1998.
This will be the first time a first family has attended a launch.
Obama was at Kennedy Space Center a year ago to outline his new post-shuttle exploration plan of sending astronauts to an asteroid and ultimately Mars. He canceled his predecessor’s moon-focused program named Constellation.
The president is calling for private companies to replace the shuttle’s function of delivering crew and cargo to the space station, so NASA can focus on deep space.
Only one shuttle launch remains. Atlantis will close out NASA’s 30-year shuttle program at the end of June.
Nearly 2,000 contractor workers will be laid off at Cape Canaveral following the last flight. More than 500 employees lost their jobs earlier this month.
The White House official confirming the Obamas’ attendance at the launch asked not to be named to speak freely ahead of a formal announcement about Obama’s plans.
Days after the shooting, Obama visited Giffords in the hospital, and later revealed to a packed auditorium that she had opened her eyes for the first time shortly after his visit. Six people were killed in the shooting, and 12 others were wounded. Jared Loughner, 22, has pleaded not guilty to 49 federal charges stemming from the attack.
Giffords’ spokesman C.J. Karamargin said the congresswoman was “delighted” when he told her in person at her Houston rehab facility that the Obamas would be at the launch, and that she simply said, “Awesome.”
“She smiled and she was very pleased,” he said.
He said he didn’t know whether Giffords would watch the launch with the Obamas.
“Once we get signed off from the doctors, the goal is to have her get there,” he said. “Anything beyond that has yet to be worked out.”
Karamargin said he hadn’t seen Giffords in about a month until Wednesday and that from what he saw, “she’s continuing to make tremendous progress,” although he declined to elaborate.
Giffords, 40, served on the House Science and Technology Committee, and took on NASA affairs while heading the space subcommittee.
Karamargin said Giffords has previously asked Obama to attend launches to no avail. “This is a very cool development,” he said.
Giffords was at her husband’s third launch in 2008; the couple married in 2007. Kelly’s identical twin, Scott, is also an astronaut and will be there. Neither brother has ever missed the launch of the other