Private Life, Public Spotlight: Astronaut and Congresswoman’s Love Story
Photos of loved ones and other inspiration adorn Congresswoman Giffords' hospital room.
Credit: Mark Kelly/Facebook

The decision by veteran astronaut Mark Kelly to rejoin his crew for NASA's final flight of the shuttle Endeavour as his congresswoman wife recovers from a gunshot wound has cast an unprecedented public glimpse into the love story between a spaceman and a politician.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in the head Jan. 8 when a gunman opened fire while she was speaking at a constituent meeting outside a Tucson grocery store. The attack killed six and injured 13.

This Valentine's Day will find Giffords undergoing rehab in Houston. She has been recovering so quickly that her husband recently decided to resume training for his planned launch aboard the space shuttle April 19.

"The progress she has made with this injury has been nothing short of a miracle," Kelly told ABC's Diane Sawyer.

Window into astronaut's private life

Astronauts' private lives are usually kept private, with both NASA and the astronauts normally preferring to focus on the mission when speaking to the press.

"They're actually quite private and have gotten substantially more private over the last 50 or 60 years," said astronaut expert Michael Cassutt, author of the book "Who's Who in Space." "Even in the last decade, the official information that NASA puts out has gotten a bit more restricted. They'd like their private lives to stay private. They'd like their family lives to stay private."

Kelly already had a slightly higher profile than most astronauts because of his marriage to a congresswoman. Furthermore, the fact that Kelly's identical twin brother, Scott Kelly, is also an astronaut helped make him particularly notable. They are the only identical twin astronauts working today.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (right) with her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (right) with her husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.
Credit: Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords office

Yet the recent events have thrust both Kelly and Giffords into the limelight, revealing their unusual and touching relationship.

"It is an unprecedented look at one individual's, or a couple's, life, but they are not a normal couple," Cassutt told SPACE.com. "They're the Brad and Angelina of the astronaut office in that regard. It's a whole different level of celebrity and notoriety."

Astronaut meets congresswoman

The couple met in 2003 at a young leaders conference in China.

Though he was married at the time, and she had a boyfriend, they kept in touch. A year later when they saw each other at a second conference, he was divorced, and the two became better friends. Afterwards, they would call and e-mail each other, and Giffords would even give Kelly dating advice.

In November 2004, they went on a date — to an Arizona State Prison facility, where Giffords went to learn more about the death penalty.

"That was our first date, was in death row," Kelly told ABC.

Yet from what might sound like an unromantic beginning, their relationship blossomed. Soon, Kelly was visiting Giffords on her congressional campaign tour, and she came to watch him launch aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 2006.

The couple married in 2007 in a ceremony reflecting both her Judaism and his Irish Catholic heritage. The wedding was held at an organic produce farm in Amado, Ariz.

"We had the combination military, mariachis, Jewish wedding. With a chuppa," Kelly said.

The astronaut, who had traveled 200 million miles above the Earth, gave Giffords a ring inscribed, "You're the closest to heaven that I've ever been."

Astronaut Mark Kelly takes a moment for a photo near the commander's station on the forward flight deck of Space Shuttle Discovery during the STS-124 mission.
Astronaut Mark Kelly takes a moment for a photo near the commander's station on the forward flight deck of Space Shuttle Discovery during the STS-124 mission.
Credit: NASA

The wedding was profiled in the New York Times wedding section.

"She had it all," Kelly said of falling in love with his wife, according to the profile. "Beautiful, smart, hard- working, balanced, fun to be with, and she laughed at my jokes."

For her part, Giffords said she started falling for Kelly when he talked of his love for his two daughters.

"When our relationship just kept getting deeper, I felt a huge sense of relief," she said. "I had found someone like me. We're both really curious. We’re focused on the same things."

Pulling for a full recovery

Kelly has described the past month as the most difficult of his life.

The veteran astronaut and Navy test pilot, who flew 39 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm, admitted that after the shooting he wasn't sure he was tough enough to handle this situation.

But the two have made it through so far, with Giffords even speaking her first words since the shooting this week when she asked to have toast with her breakfast, according to news reports

Kelly also described how his injured wife once reached up and started giving him a neck massage.

"It's so typical of her that no matter how bad the situation might be for her, she's looking out for other people," he told ABC.

The doctors have not ruled out a complete recovery for Giffords, and that's what Kelly said he's pulling for.

And while he might wish she wouldn't return to Congress, he already anticipated her wanting to get back to work.

“I think she's such a devoted public servant that she's going to come out of this and be more resolved to fix things and make things better for people," Kelly said. "What she does is a lot harder than what I do."

Space launch ahead

Not only have recent events heightened interest in Kelly and Giffords' relationship — they've also put a spotlight on Kelly's upcoming mission.

The shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 flight was already high-profile. It is scheduled to be the last flight of the orbiter, and the second-to-last space shuttle flight before Endeavour and its sister orbiters are retired.

Kelly will launch with five crewmates on a two-week trip to deliver a billion-dollar astrophysics experiment and a load of spare supplies to the International Space Station.

He has said he's already talked to Giffords' doctors, and he intends to bring his wife to Florida to see the liftoff. That should ensure robust media attendance and a load of public attention to the mission.

"Every human interest reporter will be paying attention to it," Cassutt said. "Look at the scenarios: Giffords attends the launch – well, that's a picture you want to see. That will be a nice happy-ending story. Especially at the end of the mission when you get the picture of them together — there won't be a dry eye in the place."

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.