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What Would Gabby Do?

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Kelly, before leaving Tucson en route to Houston.  

In the weeks after the tragedy, Kelly debated whether to bow out of the shuttle mission. But he didn’t want to surrender his own dreams—that wasn’t part of his story line. He’d spent a lifetime preparing for spaceflight, first as a fighter pilot and then as one of 35 people in the astronaut class of 1996—which also happened to include his twin brother. Flying in space is the point of being an astronaut, and in fifteen years Kelly had gone there only three times. When he was tapped to command the last trip of the Endeavour, Kelly wasn’t eager to give that up. Besides, there was the mission to consider. “I’ve been training for this flight for a year and a half. I know it better than anyone else,” he said two weeks after the shooting. “There are mission-success reasons and safety reasons why the best scenario is I go back to work.”

And Kelly told himself that Giffords would want him to go. Even if he couldn’t ask her, he knew she’d understand—it was one of the terms of their relationship. “Just like I don’t have a choice about whether she returns to Congress,” he told reporters, “she doesn’t have a choice in this either.”

In May, he blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with Giffords in attendance—“Awesome,” she’d managed to say when she heard that doctors would let her travel. NASA kept the press far away from Giffords. Still, someone managed to take a grainy video of her slowly climbing stairs, a crash helmet fastened to her head.

By then, Kelly had come into his own as the co-star and leading man of the Giffords story, not quite as famous as Giffords but getting closer. Soon he was out on the speaking circuit, telling the story of his courageous wife, and his own adventures in space, and asking $50,000 per speech. It was Giffords who now looked on as Kelly held forth. In a Washington ceremony for his retirement from NASA, she smiled and clipped a medal on Kelly’s chest. It was Kelly who was now pursued by the media—with Giffords out of reach, he was “the get,” in TV parlance.

Among the networks, competition to land the first interview with Kelly was fierce, though decorous. Some producers at NBC petitioned Giffords’s staff. But they’d miscalculated. Kelly was the decision-maker, and he favored ABC’s Diane Sawyer, a crafty story shaper. Kelly was given equal billing. She called her segment “The Congresswoman and the Astronaut: An American Story of Love and Strength.”

“It was being presented as a fairy tale,” noted Karamargin with satisfaction. “Ms. Smith goes to meet Buzz Lightyear.”

On June 21, Scribner announced that it had reached an agreement to do a book with Giffords and Kelly. Giffords’s language skills were still very limited, as Carusone told the Arizona Republic two weeks earlier, but Kelly had experience interpreting her thoughts. “After thinking about it, and talking about it, we decided it was the right thing to do to put our words and our voices on paper and tell our story from our point of view,” he told a reporter. It was said that the book would be written with Giffords’s extensive participation. But it is largely Kelly’s book.

“Somebody came to him early on: ‘Going to be five books; people going to earn money from this,’ ” a longtime friend of Giffords’s told me. “ ‘You should think about doing this yourself. Why shouldn’t you earn the money?’ I think he saw the value in that. He was leaving NASA. He’s got two girls he has to send to college. His wife is going to need lifelong medical care. So God bless him.”

In August, Giffords officially rejoined the world of politics, appearing on the floor of the House of Representatives to cast a vote to raise the debt ceiling. The Giffords team had conferred beforehand, and some had been against it—the rationale was that if she showed up for this vote, people would ask why she didn’t appear for others. But Kelly had conferred with Giffords, who’d been following the debate in the newspapers. He informed her aides that it was Giffords’s own choice—she wanted to fly in from Houston and vote—and that he supported it.

It was a powerful moment, as they’d known it would be. She waved her functional arm and smiled—her smile had returned—and brought her audience to its feet, the first time in months the two parties had agreed on anything at all.

But behind the cameras, the picture was more complicated. Giffords’s return to Congress was a one-off; she wasn’t yet ready for sustained social give-and-take. Even as the November 15 release date of the book approached, she was still struggling with her recovery. No doubt she has good days and bad days. In October, a friend spoke to her by phone. The meaning of the conversation was clear—Giffords was trying to explain that she was getting better. But it was expressed in a kind of shorthand: “Boo better,” she said at one point.


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