The wounded Arizona representative witnessed Mark Kelly's blast off on Endeavor

By Steve Helling and Stephen M. Silverman
May 16, 2011 02:30 PM

As was hoped, a recovering Gabrielle Giffords clapped as she watched her husband, Commander Mark Kelly, and his crew blast off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Monday morning.

As Kelly and five other Space Shuttle Endeavor astronauts began their 16-day mission to the International Space Station – Endeavor’s 25th and final mission – Rep. Giffords, in a wheelchair, said with a smile, “Good stuff. Good stuff.”

It was a scene that would have been unthinkable four months ago, when the Arizona congresswoman was shot in the head during a public appearance. Although Giffords has not appeared in public since the assassination attempt, doctors say that her recovery has been remarkable.

“She’s very focused on her recovery, and she’s working very hard,” says her chief of staff, Pia Carusone. “She wants to return to her life, both personally and professionally.”

Also in attendance at the 8:56 a.m. Monday launch were Giffords’s mother, Mark Kelly’s twin brother (fellow astronaut Scott Kelly), Mark Kelly’s children, a nurse and the spouses of crew members.

Shortly before the launch, Giffords and Kelly exchanged wedding rings. He’s now wearing hers on his pinky; she’s wearing his on a gold chain around her neck. Giffords also wrote Kelly a personal note, which has been hidden somewhere on the space shuttle. Before the launch, Kelly’s twin brother, Scott, gave a bouquet of red tulips to the congresswoman.

“She is very inspirational,” says Carusone. “It reminds all of us why we’re so devoted to her, why we like working with her.”

Giffords was brought to the Kennedy Space Station from the Houston rehabilitation facility where she is being treated for a severe head wound she sustained Jan. 8 when a gunman in Tucson attacked an event she was attending.

In all, six people were killed in the attack and, in addition to Giffords, 12 others were wounded.

Although the couple will be apart for 16 days, Kelly will have a frequent reminder of his wife while he orbits the earth: on launch day, all six crew members were wearing blue rubber bracelets that read “Peace. Love. Gabby.”