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Tragedy's impact extends to space

Bill Clark / Roll Call Photos

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., center, she gives a tour of Statuary Hall in the Capitol to Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, in July 2008. Kelly is due to command a space shuttle mission in April.

Today's Arizona shooting is likely to have reverberations that extend beyond Earth, for personal as well as political reasons.

NASA astronaut Mark Kelly is the husband of one of the victims, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and flew from Houston in the wake of the shooting to be at his wounded wife's side. 

Kelly is currently in training to command the shuttle Endeavour's crew on a flight to the International Space Station in April. Endeavour is to bring up a $1.5 billion international physics experiment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, and as of now it would be the final mission of the 30-year space shuttle program. Congress has authorized another shuttle mission this summer on Atlantis, but the funding has not yet been set aside for that flight.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued this statement in the wake of the shooting:


"We at NASA are deeply shocked and saddened by the senseless shooting of Representative Giffords and others at Saturday's public event in Tucson. As a longtime supporter of NASA, Representative Giffords not only has made lasting contributions to our country, but is a strong advocate for the nation's space program and a member of the NASA family. She also is a personal friend with whom I have had the great honor of working. We at NASA mourn this tragedy and our thoughts and prayers go out to Congresswoman Giffords, her husband Mark Kelly, their family, and the families and friends of all who perished or were injured in this terrible tragedy."

Will husband be grounded?
The space agency had no immediate word about how Kelly's status might change. In addition to being an astronaut, Kelly is a Navy captain who was a combat aviator during the first Gulf War.

"Normal practice in military flying is to ground a pilot who is undergoing severe family crisis, for a reasonable time," NBC News space analyst James Oberg observed in an e-mail. "Add to that — his wife now faces a long recovery, and his chances of being with her more than a few hours a week are slim to none, if he continues training. He could well request being replaced, perhaps by the commander of the STS-135 [Atlantis] mission that is to follow his flight. They could swap seats. Or he could figure he's had his fair share of flights and just stand down."

Kelly has two children from a previous marriage.

Mark Kelly is the only astronaut on the planet to have a twin brother who's also an spaceflier: Scott Kelly is currently serving as commander of the International Space Station, and sources said he was made aware of the shooting during Earth-to-orbit consultations.

Since taking command of the space station in November, Scott Kelly has been NASA's chief "Twitternaut" in orbit — and for the past few weeks he's been using Twitter to run a space-based geography contest. His Twitter nickname is @StationCDRKelly, and Mark Kelly's nickname is @ShuttleCDRKelly.

Scott Kelly commented on the day's events in an update posted to his Twitter and Facebook accounts:

"I want to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers, words of condolences and encouragement for the victims and their families of this horrific event. My sister-in-law, Gabrielle Giffords, is a kind, compassionate, brilliant woman, loved by friends and political adversaries alike — a true patriot. What is going on in our country that such a good person can be the subject of such senseless violence? ..."

"It's a sad day," the station commander wrote from space.

Astronauts in orbit have often had to deal with personal tragedies down on Earth. In 2007, for example, astronaut Daniel Tani was on the space station when his 90-year-old mother died in a traffic accident. Tani was told immediately, issued a statement expressing his grief and carried on. It was another two months before he was back on Earth.

Spacefliers are routinely asked before their launch whether they want to get tragic news immediately or be kept in the dark until their return to Earth. Most have been told immediately. But there are exceptions: In 1978, Soviet ground controllers did not inform cosmonaut Gyorgy Grechko about his father's death until his return from the Salyut 6 space station, two months later.

"I must admit that this news would have put me out of working form. I would have been half in space and half on Earth, beside my father's grave," Grechko said decades later. "So I guess I must acknowledge that while it seems inhumane, it was probably the right decision."

Involved in space policy
Giffords' ties to the space effort aren't merely personal. During the past congressional session, she chaired the House Science and Technology subcommittee that was most directly involved in setting space policy. She was an outspoken supporter of the Constellation program, NASA's in-house effort to develop spaceships that could replace the shuttle and eventually go to the moon. Under the Obama administration, Constellation was marked for cancellation, over Giffords' objections.

She spoke out against the NASA authorization bill that went through Congress before last November's election, and has voiced skepticism about plans to use commercial spacecraft to service the space station after the shuttles are retired this year. Giffords was expected to be the ranking minority member of the space subcommittee in the new Congress.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation said its members were extending their thoughts and sympathies to Giffords and the other victims and their families, and passed along this quote from the federation's president, Bretton Alexander:

"This is an unimaginable tragedy, and our hearts go out to the victims of this attack. Congresswoman Giffords is a passionate supporter of the space program and NASA, and we wish her the best for a speedy and full recovery."

Congressional colleagues were quick to express their shock over today's shooting. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas., the new chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, issued this statement:

"I am shocked and saddened by this terrible news, and my prayers are with Gabrielle, her husband Astronaut Mark Kelly, her family, her staff, and all those who were injured and lost their lives and their families. Gabrielle has so many friends in Congress and is an outstanding Congresswoman for her district and for the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. I have been to her district with her to support solar energy and to the Cape with her to support the Shuttle flights. She is a wonderful person, and our prayers are with her, Captain Kelly, and the families of all the victims of this tragedy."

Another statement came from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who heads the Senate Commerce subcommittee on science and space and worked closely with Giffords on space policy:

"I am deeply saddened to learn of today's events in Tucson.  My prayers go out to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and all the victims, as well as to our NASA family, which includes her husband, who is training to be the next commander of the space shuttle mission slated for April, and her brother-in-law, who is currently serving aboard the International Space Station."

We have a Web page set aside for condolences in the wake of the shooting, but if you'd like to reflect specifically on the space angle of this tragedy, feel free to leave your comments below.


This posting was last updated at 4:15 a.m. ET Jan. 9.

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