NASA's chief expressed hope Monday that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords will be able to attend her husband's shuttle launch in two months amid new signs of progress for the wounded congresswoman.
Astronaut Mark Kelly has said he expects his wife to be well enough to be at Cape Canaveral, Fla., for his launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, although her doctor says it's too early to say.
"I think it would be tremendous for the crew, tremendous for all of us in the NASA family to have her do that . tremendous for the nation when you get right down to it," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told The Associated Press in Washington on Monday.
Bolden said Monday that he was "happy to approve" Kelly's decision to fly. Kelly resumed training last week at Johnson Space Center in Houston while Giffords continues rehab at a hospital in the same city. Kelly is commander of Endeavour's final voyage, which is slated for April 19.
Bolden said Giffords would be treated "like a normal spouse" if she could go to Florida, even though she's also the ranking Democrat on the committee that oversees the space agency.
"When he says Gabby would want him to fly that's what he means," said Bolden. "She understands the importance of what we do."
Giffords was gravely wounded when she was shot in the head during a shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six and injured 12 others. After two weeks in intensive care, she was moved to Houston, where her family and staff have reported in recent days that she can walk the halls of the hospital holding onto a cart and can mouth the words to simple songs.
NASA's Bolden said he hasn't seen or talked with Giffords. He said he's talked to Kelly a number of times and told him: "Please give her a hug from me and whisper in her ear that we love her."
Kelly said in an interview broadcast Monday on NBC that he can ask his wife questions and she can respond.
"The communication is coming back very quickly," he said.
Kelly said she is working so hard that her speech therapist, who only a few days ago was trying to get her to talk more, is now asking Giffords to slow down and make sure she hears the question before giving an answer.
As an example, Kelly recounted a time when the therapist had three cards on a table, showing George W. Bush, President Barack Obama and George Washington.
"Before she was asked a question, she'd picked up the card and held it up and said 'George Bush,'" Kelly told NBC's Brian Williams. "She's a hard worker, and she's trying. She's speaking a lot, and at some level they are asking her to slow down a little bit."
The New York Times, citing doctors and her staff, reported on its website late Sunday that Giffords' efforts to relearn how to speak have included mouthing song lyrics, such as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Happy Birthday to You," as friends and family sang along.
Giffords also briefly spoke with her brother-in-law Scott Kelly by telephone Sunday afternoon as he orbited aboard the International Space Station.
The congresswoman began intensive rehabilitation at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston last month. The Times reported that an e-mail sent to friends about a week ago by Giffords' mother said that the congresswoman has been doing squats and repetitive motions to build her muscles and walking through the hospital's halls while holding onto a cart.
The 40-year-old Giffords has beaten one of her nurses at tic-tac-toe and has changed from "kind of a limp noodle" to someone who is "alert, sits up straight with good posture," the e-mail from Gloria Giffords said.
For Valentine's Day on Tuesday, Giffords' Facebook page showed a photo of colorful tulips given to the congresswoman from Kelly. Next to the vase was a piece of toast.
Rehabilitation specialists say brain injury patients who regain speech typically begin to do so about four to six weeks after the incident.