NEW YORK — It’s a sight many Americans would surely love to see: a recovering Rep. Gabrielle Giffords watching as her astronaut husband blasts off into space.
But it’s unlikely they will see it. Giffords will attend Friday’s space shuttle launch in Florida but watch in private, and her staff says there are no plans to release photos of her, though that could change.
Why is the congresswoman, whose recovery from catastrophic wounds has inspired so many, being kept out of public view?
First of all, it’s long-standing NASA policy for all relatives at a shuttle launch. “It’s just for privacy,” said spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. “They are here in a private capacity.”
Sometimes family members choose independently to make themselves available, she said, but most decide not to.
“They’re not the spotlight,” added space center spokesman Allard Beutel. “They’re not the public figure.”
Of course, Giffords is a special case. There’s extraordinary public interest in her progress since the Jan. 8 assassination attempt in Tucson, Ariz., and in the simultaneous story of husband Mark Kelly’s journey into space — a life-vs.-career dilemma like no other.
Details about Giffords’ condition in the 3½ months since she took a bullet to the head have been sparse. There have been no photos showing her face. A grainy video image purporting to show her slowly climbing stairs to board the plane for Florida earlier this week was the most visible and hopeful sign yet of her improvement.
Few would argue with a patient’s right to privacy, even a public figure and officeholder like Giffords. But her neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Lemole, added another dimension to the privacy argument when asked recently if it wouldn’t be beneficial for the public to see the effects of the shooting.
“I understand that would be useful to the public, but I also understand that a picture is worth a thousand words, and with those words would come rampant speculation,” he told the Association of Health Care Journalists earlier this month. “If you release one picture, people start speculating on what you will or won’t do, on what you can or can’t do.”
Lemole, of University Medical Center in Tucson, added that when he performs brain surgery, the patient may have a swollen eye at the beginning and a bruise at three months, and then, at six months, look like someone who never had brain surgery at all.
“Perhaps the congresswoman, after all is said and done, after she recovers as well as she will, may release [photos] as sort of a retrospective documentary, and maybe that would be valuable,” he said. But that, he made clear, lies well into the future.
Giffords had a piece of her skull removed shortly after the shooting to allow room for brain swelling and has been wearing a helmet adorned with an Arizona state flag.
Earlier this week, The Arizona Republic quoted her staff as saying she speaks in single words or simple declarative phrases, she has short hair with scars showing through, and her face is sometimes swollen but basically looks the same. Those close to her also said she can stand on her own and walk a little.
The congresswoman arrived in Cape Canaveral on Wednesday, leaving behind the Houston hospital where she has been undergoing rehab for the past three months. When she watches the shuttle Endeavour lift off Friday afternoon, it will surely be her husband’s last mission in space. NASA is retiring the shuttles with one final flight in June.
“It’s something she’s been looking forward to for a long time,” Kelly said of his wife’s trip. “She’s more than medically ready to be here.”