Giffords: 'Good stuff' as shuttle Endeavour lifts off on final mission
Giffords' voice sounds normal, understands complex concepts, said staffer
Space shuttle Endeavour, commanded by Capt. Mark Kelly, launched at 5:56 a.m. Monday morning. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was in Florida to see her husband blast off on Endeavour's final mission.
"Good stuff," Giffords said as the shuttle lifted off, said her chief of staff, Pia Carusone.
The launch was "routine—no anomalies discussed," said NASA spokesman George Diller over the agency's video feed.
"We saw a beautiful lift-off this morning," Carusone said at a post-launch press conference.
Giffords watched the launch with the spouses of the other astronauts from a rooftop at the Kennedy Space Center.
"We were sort of speechless," Carusone said. "I can't say there were a lot of words."
"We were more cheering, clapping; there wasn't a lot of talking in that moment."
"There's a real sense of relief that this went off safely," Carusone said. "We've been looking forward to this for many months."
Wedding rings traded
Giffords traded wedding rings with Kelly prior to the launch. He took hers aboard the shuttle, while she is wearing his on a chain around her neck.
A note written by Giffords was hidden aboard the shuttle for Kelly to find, Carusone said.
Giffords' communications staffer Mark Kimble, who was at the scene of her shooting, met with the congresswoman for the first time since Jan. 8.
"It was certainly a very emotional moment," he said.
"It reminds all of us why we're so devoted to her, why we enjoy working for her," he said.
"To actually see her and talk with her, it was a very moving experience."
Giffords will return to the Houston hospital where she is undergoing rehab Monday morning, Carusone said.
It's not likely that Giffords will return to watch the shuttle land. Because the landing is planned for the middle of the night, it could be "disruptive to her therapy," Carusone said.
Giffords' next medical hurdle is the replacement of the portion of her skull that was removed to allow her brain to swell without injury, Carusone said.
The congresswoman's rehabilitation is "certainly a slow process," Carusone said. "It requires a lot of patience, and understanding that recovering from being shot point-blank in the head takes time."
Giffords "understands, if not everything, close to everything" when presented with complex concepts, Carusone said.
"She understands sarcastic humor," she said.
"Her voice sounds very normal, it sounds as it did before the shooting," she said.
"She's able to fluctuate her volume level" and express being light-hearted or serious with the quality of her voice, Carusone said.
"Her speech is getting better with the constant therapy she's doing."
Endeavour and its crew of six will make a 16-day trip in orbit.
The 134th space shuttle mission is to be the next to last flight for the program.
Endeavour will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a device built to search the universe for dark matter and antimatter, to the International Space Station.
The mission is to include the last-ever scheduled spacewalk by a shuttle crew.
Launch of STS-134
All aboard Endeavour
Suitup and walkout
Countdown coverage begins
U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords traveled to Florida this weekend, making a second trip to the Kennedy Space Center to see her husband blast off aboard the shuttle after a launch last month was scrubbed.
Capt. Mark Kelly, Giffords' husband, will command the shuttle on its last mission, the second-to-last for the program.
After the launch, Gifford will return to Houston, where she is undergoing rehab after being shot through the brain on Jan. 8 in what authorities charge was an assassination attempt.
Due to privacy concerns and in deference to the family wishes, no additional details regarding the congresswoman’s travel will be released, her office said.
Giffords will not meet with the media or issue a statement while she is in Florida, her office said.
Her chief of staff, Pia Carusone, is expected to appear at a post-launch press conference to discuss Giffords' reaction to her husband's final mission aboard the shuttle.
Giffords, who had traveled to Florida two weeks ago to watch Endeavour begin its final mission, returned to a Houston rehab center when the launch was delayed.
A failed heater in a hydraulic system forced NASA to cancel an April 29 launch.
Just one other shuttle mission remains, a summer space flight by Atlantis scheduled for June 28.
The Endeavour launch was first delayed from April 19 because Russia plans to send an unmanned cargo rocket to the International Space Station on April 27. NASA did not want the shuttle docked at the space station when the other ship arrived.
Giffords, a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, attended Kelly's most recent launch when he commanded the space shuttle Discovery in 2008.
Kelly's upcoming mission is scheduled to be the last flight for Endeavour and the next-to-last space shuttle flight before the fleet is retired later this year. Shuttle Atlantis will blast off on the final shuttle mission in July.
Rehabilitation in Houston
Giffords is recovering from a shot to the head in what authorities charge was a Jan. 8 assassination attempt. Six were killed and 13 wounded, including the congresswoman, in the mass shooting at a constituent meet-and-greet.
She was moved to a Houston rehab facility two weeks after being wounded. Doctors have said her recovery is "remarkable."
Giffords is "doing remarkably well," her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, said at a NASA press conference last month.
"She's improving every day," Kelly said. "She's starting to walk, talk more, more every day."
"She's starting to process some of the tragedy, that we all went through in January—she's going through that as we speak," he said.
"Despite that, she remains in a very good mood."
Accused faces 49 federal charges
In March, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, was charged with 49 federal counts in the Jan. 8 attack. Not guilty pleas were entered on his behalf by the court.
Fourteen of the charges Loughner faces could result in the death penalty, if the prosecution seeks it. No decision of whether to ask for capital punishment has been made, authorities have said.
Loughner was returned to a Tucson prison this week, after undergoing a competency examination in Missouri. He is due in court May 25 for a hearing to determine his ability to understand the charges against him and participate in his defense. The hearing will not address his mental state at the time of the shootings.
Loughner will likely face local charges in the shooting incident, authorities have said.