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US shuttle flight a celebrity love story, too

WASHINGTON, Apr – It may be hard to top the royal wedding, but the second-to-last US space shuttle flight set to coincide with the Friday nuptials of William and Kate is a star-studded love story in its own right.

President Barack Obama will be on hand with his family to see the shuttle Endeavour lift off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, marking the first time a US president will watch a launch in person since Bill Clinton did in 1998.

And there is much ado about the attendance of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in January but has completed months of gruelling rehab in order to watch her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, command a space shuttle for the last time.

"It is truly remarkable that she is able to attend this very historic launch," Giffords\’ spokesman CJ Karamargin told AFP. "This is something she would not want to miss."

Giffords was shot point blank in the head by a 22-year-old gunman at a grocery store political meeting on January 8. Six other people were killed in the rampage, including a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge.

The bullet ripped through the left side of the 40-year-old Arizona lawmaker\’s brain, the part that controls speech and movement on the right side of her body.

Her staff has said she is working hard to regain movement on that side and to improve her speech through hours of exhausting rehabilitation at a Houston hospital.

Doctors have praised her progress, but the extent of her recovery will be left to the public imagination as she is not going to make any appearance before the host of television cameras on hand for the launch, said Karamargin.

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Kelly, who has previously talked about how he is able to keep his personal life apart from his job, said in a televised interview that she was "100 percent" herself.

"Her personality\’s a hundred percent there. You know, it\’s difficult for her to walk. The communication skills are difficult, at this point," Kelly told CBS news on Monday.

Meanwhile, the shuttle Endeavour may seem to be overshadowed in all the fuss leading up to the liftoff party, but its mission marks another big step toward the end of the 30-year-old US space shuttle program.

The youngest shuttle in the original six-member fleet will be carrying the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS), a particle physics detector that is considered very cool in science circles.

The AMS will stay onboard the International Space Station and scan the universe for evidence of mysterious dark matter and antimatter.

Endeavour was "born out of the tragedy of Challenger," NASA recalled in the mission overview, detailing how the explosion of the Challenger shuttle in 1986 led to the authorization by Congress a year later to build a new craft.

Endeavour first flew into space in 1991, and its departure on Friday at 1947 GMT from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on a 14-day mission to the International Space Station will mark its 25th career mission.

The six-member all male crew includes five Americans and one Italian, astronaut Roberto Vittori from the European Space Agency.

Shortly after the liftoff, Giffords will be flown back to Houston to continue her rehab and will await a phone call from her husband in a couple of days when he arrives at the ISS, said Karamargin.

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"In Congress she is one of the most ardent supporters of our space program," he said, noting that this will be the third time Giffords watches a launch in person.

"There is no way she would miss a launch involving her husband and there is no way she would not want him to go on this."

When Endeavour returns to Earth it will become the second shuttle in the remaining fleet of three to enter retirement.

The prototype Enterprise never flew in space, and the shuttle Columbia exploded in 2003 as it made its return approach to Earth.

Discovery flew its final mission in February and returned in March.

Atlantis is scheduled for its last mission in June, after which the 30-year US space shuttle program will end for good leaving astronauts to rely on Russia\’s space capsules for transit to the orbiting research station.

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