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NASA braces for Giffords, Obama, huge launch crowd

CAPE CANAVERAL — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords left hospitals behind Wednesday for the first time since her tragic shooting nearly four months ago and traveled to NASA territory for the next-to-last space shuttle launch with her husband in command.

"Gabby is looking forward to some time away from the rehab center & the chance to see Captain Mark Kelly launch again!" Giffords' staff posted on her Facebook page.

Space shuttle Endeavour is due to blast off Friday afternoon with Kelly at the helm. It will be Endeavour's final voyage after 19 years of spaceflight, as the shuttle era nears its end.

NASA managers said they're thrilled to host Giffords, even though her presence requires a little extra care and attention. She flew by NASA jet from Houston to Florida's Space Coast, a day behind the other astronauts' wives and children.

"She's NASA family," said Mike Moses, chairman of the mission management team.

Since she was critically wounded in the Jan. 8 shooting, the Arizona congresswoman has been in hospitals — first in Tucson, Ariz., and then in Houston for rehabilitation.

NASA was staying mum on Giffords' whereabouts. Her staff confirmed her departure from Houston and arrival in Florida but provided no details.

The other VIP — President Barack Obama — will arrive on launch day.

He'll bring his wife and two daughters in what will be the first visit by a first family for a launch.

Only two other sitting presidents have ever witnessed a manned launch: Richard Nixon for Apollo 12 in 1969 and Bill Clinton for John Glenn's return to orbit in 1998 aboard shuttle Discovery.

With only two space shuttle launches remaining, everyone, it seems, is jostling for a front-row seat.

An estimated 40,000 guests are expected at Kennedy Space Center on launch day. Outside the gates, the crowd is expected to be the biggest in years, if not decades.

Between 500,000 and 750,000 people are expected to jam roadways for the 3:47 p.m. Friday liftoff. That's nearly twice the crowd that descended for Discovery's last launch in February.

Good weather is forecast for the launch: an 80 percent chance.

No public appearances or statements by Giffords are planned. She will return to her rehab hospital in Houston soon after the launch, according to her staff.

NASA braces for Giffords, Obama, huge launch crowd 04/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 10:13pm]
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