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Giffords to watch shuttle launch

Politician Gabrielle Giffords left hospitals behind for the first time since her tragic shooting nearly four months ago and headed for Nasa territory for its next-to-last space shuttle launch commanded by her husband.

"Gabby is looking forward to some time away from the rehab centre and the chance to see Captain Mark Kelly launch again," Ms Giffords' staff posted on her Facebook page.

Space shuttle Endeavour is due to blast off on Friday afternoon, local time, with Kelly at the helm. It will be the shuttle's final voyage after 19 years of spaceflight as the shuttle era nears the end.

Nasa managers said they were thrilled to host Democrat Ms Giffords, 40, even though her presence required a little extra care and attention.

She flew by Nasa jet from Houston to Florida's Space Coast, a day behind the other astronauts' wives and children. "She's Nasa family," said Mike Moses, chairman of the mission management team.

Since she was critically wounded in the January 8 shooting, the Arizona congresswoman has been in hospitals - first in Tucson, Arizona, and then in Houston, Texas, for rehabilitation.

Nasa was tight-lipped on Ms Giffords' whereabouts and her staff confirmed her departure from Houston and arrival in Florida but provided no details.

The other VIP - US president Barack Obama - will arrive with his wife and two daughters in what will be the first visit by a first family for a launch. Only two other sitting presidents have witnessed a manned launch - Richard Nixon for Apollo 12 in 1969 and Bill Clinton for John Glenn's return to orbit in 1998 aboard shuttle Discovery.

Endeavour and its six-man crew are bound for the International Space Station. They will deliver a £1.2 billion physics experiment and spare station parts. Four spacewalks are planned during the 14 to 16-day mission.

After the flight Endeavour will be decommissioned and sent to the California Science Centre in Los Angeles. The Kennedy Space Centre is keeping Atlantis for display, following its summer-time flight to end the 30-year shuttle programme. Discovery is bound for a Smithsonian Institution annex outside Washington.

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