Worthy Endeavour

Gabrielle Giffords watches her husband lift off while her staff continues their work

Big cheers erupted from the standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Trident Grill as the space shuttle Endeavour launched under the command of NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

The launch, which had been delayed from last month, went off on schedule at 5:56 a.m. Tucson time on Monday, May 16.

For the crowd at Trident, it was a moment of triumph in the wake of the horror of the Jan. 8 shooting rampage, which left six people dead and 13 wounded, including Giffords, who was shot through the head.

"I feel like there's been a lot of mourning," said Penelope Jacks, who had turned out for the early-morning party to see Endeavour head into the Florida skies. "It's nice to have something to celebrate. Normally, I'm not much into space, but this is different."

Giffords, who has been recovering from her injuries at a Houston hospital, was able to travel to NASA's Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of the shuttle Endeavour, on a planned 16-day mission to the International Space Station to deliver supplies and equipment, including an alpha magnetic spectrometer designed to help scientists uncover the secrets of dark matter. This is the final trip for Endeavor, and the next-to-last scheduled mission for the space shuttle program.

At a press conference following the Monday-morning launch, Giffords' chief of staff, Pia Carusone, said that Giffords, who has not made a public appearance since the shooting, had watched the launch alongside other crew members' families from a nearby rooftop.

"She looked at up me and said, 'Good stuff. Good stuff,'" Carusone said. "But there wasn't a lot of talking at that moment. We were more cheering and clapping and taking a moment to absorb what we were seeing."

Giffords was scheduled to return to Houston's TIRR Hermann Memorial Rehabilitation Hospital shortly after the launch to continue her recovery.

"She's focused on her recovery every day," Carusone said. "She works really hard. For people who know her, she's a determined person, and our hope is that she can return to her life, both personally and professionally, as quickly as possible, but we don't have a sense yet of when. It's just too early to tell."

While Giffords' political future remains unknown, her supporters want to be sure they're ready for a re-election campaign in 2012.

Attorney Michael McNulty, who has chaired Giffords' past congressional campaigns, said at the Trident launch party that Giffords' Cactus Roots had its first fundraiser of the 2012 cycle with Colorado Sen. Mark Udall at Hotel Congress on Saturday, May 14.

While it's impossible to say whether Giffords will be up for a congressional run at this point, "most of the people who have seen her and know her can't imagine another outcome," McNulty says.

Some Arizona Democrats are hoping she'll aim even higher than the House of Representatives. Public Policy Polling released a survey last week that showed Giffords was the top choice of Arizona Democrats as a candidate for retiring Republican Jon Kyl's Senate seat in 2012. Forty-six percent of Democrats said they'd like to see her run.

The poll also showed that if she were healthy, Giffords would be competitive. In a hypothetical match-up, she had 48 percent of the vote against the only GOP candidate who has announced a Senate run, Congressman Jeff Flake, who was at 41 percent.

Back in Tucson, it was another busy week for Giffords' Tucson staff as they settled into a new office at 3945 E. Fort Lowell Road.

Bill Carnegie, of the Community Food Bank, stopped by the new digs last Thursday, May 12, to announce the establishment of the Gabrielle Giffords Family Assistance Center, which will be built inside the Food Bank's warehouse.

The center, which will be built with $150,000 donated to the Food Bank in Giffords' name in the wake of the Jan. 8 shooting, will "bring all the services together in the community so people have a one-stop shop to find out what benefits they might be eligible for, local, statewide or federal," says Carnegie. "We can help people sign up for different programs or tell them exactly where to go."

He foresees allowing United Way staffers to use the space for tax tips in the spring, and health-care centers to offer blood-pressure checks or blood-sugar monitoring for diabetes.

While the Food Bank raised more than $160,000 from around the world after the Giffords family suggested that people make a contribution in her name after she was shot, the budget remains tight. Most of the donations to the nonprofit come in the months of November and December, making the start of summer a lean time, according to Carnegie.

"People think about hunger in November and December," he says. "They don't really think about hunger the rest of the year."

Overall demand at the Community Food Bank continues to grow, with the number of people asking for help having more than doubled in four years, says Carnegie.

Demand is growing as state budget cuts kick in and reduce the number of people eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other programs.

"Because of the economy and cuts to AHCCCS and state programs, our numbers are going up significantly," Carnegie says. "Right now, there are so many people who are out of work or underemployed. When I left the Food Bank this morning, there were probably 300 people standing in line."