HOUSTON – U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was seen publicly for the first time since a January shooting Wednesday when she boarded a NASA flight to Florida, where she will attend the space shuttle Endeavour’s final launch on Friday. She arrived safely in Cape Canaveral around 12 p.m.
Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, is commanding the Endeavour mission.
Giffords arrived at Houston’s Ellington Airport with a group of people – including a nurse from TIRR Memorial Hermann – in a dark-colored SUV around 9 a.m.
The vehicle drove right up to a waiting plane, and Giffords – guided by a second person—walked up the stairs into the aircraft.
After watching the video of Giffords boarding the plane, Houston neurologist Dr. Jeffrey Jackson—who is not Giffords’ physician – said her progress is remarkable.
"You can see she’s walking largely unattended. She appears to be weak on the right side. She’s going one step at a time, and she’s fairly mobile, that’s remarkable improvement," Jackson said.
While Giffords and her team were waiting to take off, they posted a photo of her vantage point from the plane to her Twitter account.
The post said she was looking forward to some time away from the rehabilitation center and to seeing Mark launch again.
Giffords has been in an intensive rehabilitation program at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston for months, recovering from a gunshot wound to the head. She was shot at a political event in Tucson on January 8. Six people were killed.
Giffords husband and the rest of the Endeavour crew flew to Florida Tuesday in T-38 training jets.
When Kelly arrived at the Kennedy Space Center, he was greeted by his twin brother, fellow astronaut Scott Kelly.
Both men wore turquoise "Gabby" wristbands in honor of Giffords.
Speaking on behalf of his five crewmates, Mark Kelly expressed pleasure at seeing the astronauts’ wives and children, who flew in a little earlier and gathered nearby.
"I’m personally looking forward to my wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, getting here pretty soon, to be here in time for our launch on Friday," he told the crowd of family members and journalists.
"It’s something she’s been looking forward to for a long time," he said. "She’s been working really hard to make sure that her doctors would permit her to come. She’s more than medically ready to be here, and she’s excited about making this trip."
Giffords and her doctors set the Florida trip as a goal early on in her rehabilitation.
For brain-injured patients like Giffords, goals and outings are key to rehab. Setting goals helps patients work toward something tangible, doctors say, while trips and outings can be used to reintroduce them to the community and see how they interact in different situations.
"We routinely allow patients outside visits as part of their rehabilitation," said Dr. Gerard Francisco, lead physician of the brain injury rehabilitation team and chief medical officer at TIRR. Francisco also is chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Medical School.
Attending the launch is an "opportune time" for Giffords to continue her therapy progression, he added in a statement.
Giffords went to Kelly’s last launch in 2008, when he commanded the space shuttle Discovery. The two married in 2007.
On its final mission, Endeavour will carry a $2 billion particle physics experiment to the International Space Station, along with a load of spare station parts.
Endeavour is set to launch at 2:47 p.m. Friday. You can watch a live stream of the launch right here at KHOU.com.
The 30-year shuttle program will end this summer with the flight of Atlantis.