HOUSTON April 27, 2011 — -- A fragile but determined Rep. Gabrielle Giffords walked one careful step at a time today up the steps of a plane that will take her Florida to watch her husband blast off on the final mission of the space shuttle Endeavor..
The gritty walk by Giffords, who was wearing a padded medical helmet, was her first public steps since being shot in the head at a public event in January.
The Arizona congresswoman left TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital and boarded a waiting NASA plane at Ellington Airport in Houston.
Giffords was spotted leaving the hospital in a wheelchair and with her face covered before being driven to the airport. At the airport, she walked under her own power and without assistance from the car to the plane stairway and slowly up the steps.
Giffords' staff has tried to keep her out of view from the public, and said she would not be making any public appearances during the Endeavor's launch. Giffords will be joined on Friday by Kelly's three daughters, President Obama and the first lady at Cape Canaveral to watch the launch.
Giffords' husband navy pilot and astronaut Mark Kelly arrived at Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday.
"She's been working really hard to make sure that her doctors would permit her to come," Kelly said Tuesday.
NASA said Giffords would receive a "little more care and attention" as she visited Florida to watch the launch.
"She is over here just like any other crew family. She needs a little more care and attention," said NASA manager Mike Moses.
"The only real impact is the extra traffic in the area but we are pleased she is here to witness her husband's launch," he said.
Kelly struggled with whether he would pilot the mission, the second to last flight of a NASA shuttle, or stay at his wife's bedside. As Giffords began showing marked improvement, he decided to fly.
On Monday, Giffords' staff said the congresswoman had just started learning details of the shooting that injured 13 people and killed 6, including federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.
Her doctors said Giffords' speech and walking was improving and visiting Florida launch was a rehabilitation goal.
"Attending the launch is an opportune time for her to continue her therapy progression," Dr. Gerard Francisco, lead physician of the brain injury rehabilitation team at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital, said in a statement.
"Her attending the launch is a goal that we were working toward, and we have achieved that end. She has made remarkable progress in her rehabilitation, and we saw no reason why she could not travel safely to Florida."
The crew of Endeavour will wear blue bracelets in honor of Giffords and when Kelly, 47, reaches space, he will read a personal note from his wife. The crew will also wake up to a song chosen by Giffords. During Kelly's 2006 mission, Giffords, Kelly's girlfriend at the time, selected U2's "Beautiful Day" to wake up the crew.
Kelly's mission, STS 134, is the second to last space shuttle flight for NASA, and will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station. AMS will detect particles to prove or disprove the Big Bang Theory of the formation of the universe.
Kelly and five other astronauts on this mission are in quarantine now, standard practice before any space shuttle launch to keep the crew healthy for their mission.