CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman critically wounded in an assassination attempt last month, will command the space shuttle Endeavour when it launches in April, NASA said on Friday.
Mark Kelly, a three-time shuttle veteran, has been on a leave of absence since Giffords was shot in the head outside a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, on January 8.
Six people, including a federal judge, were killed and 12 others were wounded. Jared Loughner has been accused in the shootings.
Giffords spent two weeks in an Arizona hospital’s intensive-care unit and was transferred to Houston on January 21 to begin rehabilitation.
At a news conference on Friday, Kelly declined to discuss details of his wife’s condition. But he said he was planning on her being at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for the targeted April 19 launch of Endeavour’s two-week mission, NASA’s last scheduled shuttle flight.
“She’s made progress every day,” Kelly said. “I have every intention that she’ll be there for the launch. I’ve already talked to her doctors about it. There really shouldn’t be any reason why she can’t go to the launch.”
Giffords is undergoing six hours a day of speech, occupational and physical therapy, Kelly said.
“She’s got very busy days,” Kelly said. “I started to think about my mission, my crew, the fact that I’ve been training for it for nearly a year and a half and considering a bunch of other factors, including what Gabrielle would want me to do and what her parents and her family and my family would like, I ultimately made the decision that I would like to return and command (the Endeavour) mission.”
Kelly said he was sure his wife would be comfortable with his decision.
“She is a big supporter of my career, a big supporter of NASA,” he said. “What we do and what our nation gets from that is very, very high on her list of things she really treasures about this country.”
Kelly told NASA managers he would like to return and laid out a plan showing how he would manage the rigors of training and being in space for two weeks. NASA gave him a trial run this week.
“He has an incredible support group, which made us more comfortable that he had folks to help him through this process and make it a doable thing for him to perform the mission,” said chief astronaut Peggy Whitson.
NASA had appointed veteran shuttle commander Frederick Sturckow to take over if Kelly decided not to return.
“It’s better to choose the fellow that’s been training for a year and a half in order to reduce the overall mission risk,” Whitson said.
Kelly is due to resume training full-time on Monday.
Endeavour is scheduled to carry the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector to the International Space Station. It currently is NASA’s final shuttle flight, although the agency is lobbying Congress for funds for an additional cargo run to the outpost in the summer.
The U.S. space agency is retiring its three space shuttles mainly because of high operating costs. It also wants to free up funds to develop spaceships that can travel farther than the space station, which orbits about 220 miles above Earth.
Editing by Peter Cooney