Shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Sends Ripples into Space

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NEW YORK — The shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 18 others in a violent rampage at a public event Jan. 8 in Tucson, Ariz., is likely to have effects that ripple all the way into space.

Giffords, the wife of NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, was shot in the head outside a Safeway supermarket, where she was holding a constituent meeting, shortly after 10 a.m. local time. Six people were killed and 13 others were wounded, including Giffords.

The accused gunman, Jared Loughner, 22, is in federal custody and has been charged with murder and attempted assassination of a member of Congress.

Doctors at University Medical Center of Tucson said Jan. 13 that the 40-year-old Giffords remains in critical condition but continued to show remarkable signs of recovery, including responding to simple verbal commands and on Jan. 12 — the day President Barack Obama arrived in Arizona to speak at a memorial for the shotting victims — opening her eyes for the first time during a visit from friends in Congress.

Giffords was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006. She holds seats on the Science and Technology, Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, and served as chairwoman of the space and aeronautics subcommittee through the end of last year. Giffords was critical of the Obama administration’s plan to cancel the Moon-bound Constellation program and later opposed a Senate proposal — which Obama ultimately signed into law — requiring NASA to build by 2016 a new heavy-lift rocket designed “not by our best engineers, but by our colleagues over on the Senate side.”

Giffords in 2007 married Kelly, a veteran of three space shuttle flights who is scheduled to command the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour on April 19. Giffords’ brother-in-law, Scott Kelly, also is a NASA astronaut. He is Mark Kelly’s identical twin brother and is living aboard the international space station as commander of the Expedition 26 mission.

With Gifford’s husband by her bedside in Tucson, NASA said Jan. 13 that it had appointed a backup commander at Kelly’s request in order to facilitate continued training for the STS-134 crew and support teams.

“Mark is still the commander of STS-134,” said Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office, in a statement. “He is facing many uncertainties now as he supports Gabrielle, and our goal is to allow him to keep his undistracted attention on his family while allowing preparations for the mission to progress. Designating a backup allows the crew and support team to continue training, and enables Mark to focus on his wife’s care.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a Jan. 8 statement, called Giffords a personal friend, “a strong advocate for the nation’s space program and a member of the NASA family.”

“We at NASA mourn this tragedy and our thoughts and prayers go out to Congresswoman Giffords, her husband Mark Kelly, their family, and the families and friends of all who perished or were injured in this terrible tragedy,” Bolden said.

Bolden, a former space shuttle commander and Marine aviator, told Space News Jan. 12 that he had spoken to Mark Kelly that morning, but not about whether he will fly his upcoming mission.

“My focus when I talk to Mark is how is his wife doing, how’s the family doing, those kinds of things,” Bolden said.

If Mark Kelly does fly the STS-134 mission, his arrival at the international space station would mark the first time that twins have flown together in space. In the hours after the Tucson shooting, his brother Scott released a statement from the space station via Facebook.

“I want to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers, words of condolences and encouragement for the victims and their families of this horrific event,” Scott Kelly wrote. “My sister-in-law, Gabrielle Giffords, is a kind, compassionate, brilliant woman, loved by friends and political adversaries alike — a true patriot: What is going on in our country that such a good person can be the subject of such senseless violence? It’s a sad day.”

Unfortunately, NASA is no stranger to helping astronauts cope with tragedy, and the space agency will likely provide support and services to Mark Kelly and his family, as well as his brother Scott as he carries out the remainder of his mission on the station.

“Scott has use of the IP phone to stay in close contact with his brother Mark and family and friends,” NASA spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters said. “He also used the on-board Internet access to monitor news reports. Astronaut office management also has been in touch with Scott and will continue, with the flight control team, to stay in touch with him and assist with any other needs. At this time, the crew is continuing light work activities over the weekend.”

In 2007, astronaut Dan Tani’s mother died in a car accident while he was living onboard the space station. Members of NASA’s Flight Surgeon Office at Johnson Space Center, flight controllers and crewmates all provided emotional support during Tani’s grieving process.