CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – With her husband in command of space shuttle Discovery and on the verge of launching, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords wanted to set the record straight.
She wasn't at the NASA launch site as a member of Congress. She was there "strictly as the spouse" — the new wife of commander Mark Kelly — and just as excited and nervous as any of the other astronauts' family members.
"We've been married six months, and the space program is relatively new to me," she said Saturday. "I mean, I grew up in Arizona, I'm a third-generation Arizonan, have no connections at all to NASA.
"I couldn't be prouder."
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Giffords cheered and gripped her mother-in-law's arm and her own mother's hand as Discovery blasted off Saturday. As soon as the shuttle reached orbit, one of Kelly's astronaut friends presented her with red roses and a card — from her husband.
"It was just fantastic. It was really amazing," she said.
A few hours earlier, she had received an e-mail from Kelly — the last one before he suited up for the late afternoon liftoff with six other astronauts.
"I love him so much. He's excited. He said, 'I'll see you in two weeks,' " Giffords told The Associated Press, her voice breaking a little as the countdown entered the final few hours.
Her stress level was way higher Saturday than it was on the day she was elected to Congress in 2006.
"We all deal with stress in our own ways. Yeah, of course, I'm nervous," she said. "It's a risky job. I'm pleased that the vehicle's in good shape. ...
"But you don't really relax until the chute opens (at touchdown), you see the shuttle coming to a stop and everyone gets off safely. At that point, you can sort of exhale and relax and know that your loved one's safe."
This was her third shuttle launch in attendance: She was at Kelly's last liftoff, in 2006, and at her brother-in-law Scott Kelly's launch last August.
Mark and Scott Kelly, by the way, are identical twins. Both are shuttle commanders and Navy officers.
Giffords is making space history in her own way: She's the first member of Congress to be married to an astronaut bound for space. A few members of Congress have rocketed into orbit, and astronauts have gone on to become politicians, most famously John Glenn. But no politician of that stature has watched from the sidelines before with such a vested interest.
She is a member of the House Science and Technology Committee, as well as the Armed Services Committee.
"I guess there's always a first for everything," Giffords, 37, said. "But I'm here strictly as the spouse today. I'm not here as a member of Congress. I'm here to make sure that I'm like heading up the ground support team."
Mark Kelly's two daughters from his first marriage, ages 10 and 13, were on hand for the launch to the international space station, as well as his mother, Giffords' parents and numerous friends, colleagues and acquaintances from Arizona and Washington. His father, who was celebrating his 68th birthday Saturday, remained behind in Houston with Kelly's 91-year-old grandmother; they planned to watch the launch on TV.
The couple met in China in 2003 during a young leaders' forum and married in November after a long-distance romance. Kelly lives in Houston, NASA's astronaut base. Giffords splits her time between Washington and Tucson, Ariz., with frequent visits to Houston.
Kelly, 44, has described their lives as "busy."
"It's all we've ever known," he said.