When NASA's shuttle Endeavour launches into space April 19, Mark Kelly plans to be at the helm.
The Navy captain has trained to lead this mission for a year and a half. He is a three-time veteran of shuttle flights. His twin brother, Scott Kelly, is orbiting the Earth as the International Space Station's commander.
Still, what really stands out about Mark Kelly's mission is this: He will soar into space barely three months after his wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was severely wounded in an assassination attempt that left six dead and 12 others wounded in Tucson, Ariz.
"She is a big supporter of my career, a big supporter of NASA," Kelly said during a news conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston. "What we do and what our nation gets from that is very, very high on her list of things she really treasures about this country."
Giffords is undergoing several hours of daily rehabilitation at a center in Houston. Kelly did not discuss his wife's condition, but he did make clear his hopes for her:
"She's made progress every day," he said. "I have every intention that she'll be there for the launch."
As tales go, it doesn't get more American than this story of duty and survival against all odds.
And this being America, we are full of opinions about it, too. Within hours of his announcement, the Associated Press had posted a story titled "Space or spouse? Many support Kelly's decision," noting online discussions and quoting married people as to what they would do in similar circumstances.
There were countless opinion pieces in the wake of the Tucson shootings. Mine wasn't among them. The only column I wanted to write was one that offered up hope, and I wasn't there yet. My own marriage to a U.S. senator had made the horrors too close and too raw. I say that as necessary disclosure, not as a plea for sympathy.
We all know there are risks to public service. My entire generation learned that in 1963 and again in 1968. But that doesn't mean any of us expect a troubled young man to open fire in a supermarket's parking lot. As random as it was irreversible, he made the unthinkable the only thing on most everybody's mind.
For weeks, I've been thinking of a friend's description of how that Saturday morning began. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting, he said. A diverse group of American citizens — including a little girl recently elected to student council, a young man engaged to be married and a federal judge — showed up outside a Safeway supermarket because they wanted to shake hands with their member of Congress.
Every couple has moments when one partner must be strong for the other. In the best relationships, we take turns. Perhaps an unexpected benefit of Mark Kelly's announcement is to be found not in public forums, but in private discussions taking place in homes across the country.
What marriage would not benefit from a conversation that begins with these questions: What would you need from me? What would you want me to do? What would you want me to know?
Such questions offer the opportunity to discuss not only what we expect from those who love us but also what we hope we would demand of ourselves.
I am grateful to Mark Kelly's continued service to our country. But I also thank him for delivering Americans like me to a different place after the enduring shock of this national tragedy.
Kelly's decision to return to space is a testament to the strength and tenacity of Gabrielle Giffords. He believes in her ability to recover. He is certain she would insist that life not only go on but also flourish.
His plan is also his promise, and it's the same one countless husbands and wives make every day to loved ones steeped in troubled times:
We are who we've always been.
© 2011 Creators Syndicate