GENEVA – Former U.S. congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords toured the European particle physics laboratory Wednesday, cheerfully facing reporters but saying little during her first trip abroad since being shot in the head last year.
Giffords was accompanying her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, on a visit to the European Center for Nuclear Research, two days after she rode a cable car up into the French Alps. The lab, known as CERN, had assembled a $2 billion cosmic ray detector that Kelly and his team carried to the International Space Station in May 2011.
That mission came just months after Giffords, a lawmaker from Arizona, was shot by a gunman in a Jan. 8, 2011, rampage that killed six and wounded 13 outside a Tucson supermarket. Since then, Giffords has undergone intensive therapy and made dramatic progress, but she also decided to leave her seat in Congress to focus on her recovery.
During a press conference Wednesday, Kelly joined CERN officials and four other astronauts in recalling the delicate task of installing the 7-ton Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the space station so that it can scan the universe for signs of dark matter and antimatter. Kelly commanded the mission, which was the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the principal investigator for the CERN-based project, said the detector is functioning "perfectly" and an international team of 600 scientists has now collected data from 18 billion cosmic rays.
Giffords, a Democrat, served on the House Science and Technology Committee, and took on NASA affairs while heading the space subcommittee. Ting singled her out for praise because of her support for the U.S. space program.
"Thank you," she quickly replied, beaming.
The 42-year-old former lawmaker said nothing else publicly, but sat during most of the half-hour press conference with her left hand clasping the hand of Ting's wife, Susan, a psychologist who is assisting her husband's project outside Geneva and who said she found Giffords to be caring and sweet.
Quiet but alert, Giffords walked slowly, with the help of aides, and was dressed casually in sneakers and slacks with her right hand in a brace and her right arm in a sling. The bullet wound in the left side of her brain has affected the use of her right arm and leg.
On Monday, Giffords and Kelly rode a cable car up the Aiguille du Midi outside Chamonix, France, where Kelly and other astronauts installed a plaque on the Refuge des Cosmiques, a high-altitude French lab for studying cosmic rays. She also ventured a few meters onto the snow, accompanied by Kelly and a mountain guide, for a photo op.
During the press conference, Kelly touched on the months between the shooting and the space mission. "As a family, we had a very difficult time between January 2011 up until I came back from space, on June 1. It was quite a challenge," he said.
He turned to acknowledge his daughters Claire and Claudia, and explained that the space shuttle had a little-known rearview mirror in which he could see the rooftop from where they and his wife were watching his launch — two days before Giffords underwent surgery to repair her skull.
"That was very helpful, just to know they were there supporting me, especially after such a difficult time in our lives," he said.
Kelly said his wife would not grant interviews until sometime later in Arizona. "She's doing great, she's doing great," Kelly told The Associated Press. "She's just here to support me."
Kelly also declined to comment on the Aurora, Colorado, movie massacre last Friday that killed 12 and wounded dozens of others. But soon after the killings he tweeted: "Gabby and I were horrified to hear of the tragedy in Colorado last night. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families."
Jared Loughner, a college dropout, was charged with first-degree murder in the attempted assassination of Giffords and other alleged crimes stemming from the shooting. He pleaded not guilty and was found mentally unfit to stand trial.
Democrat Ron Barber, Giffords' former aide who also was injured in the shooting that nearly took her life, won a June 12 special election to replace her in the U.S. House of Representatives, a victory she celebrated by hugging and kissing him on his forehead.