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Giffords' privacy assured at launch

It's a sight many Americans would surely love to see: a recovering Rep. Gabrielle Giffords watching as her astronaut husband blasts off into space.

But it's unlikely they will see it. Giffords will attend today's space shuttle launch in Florida but watch in private, and her staff says there are no plans to release photos of her, though that could change.

Why is the congresswoman, whose recovery from catastrophic wounds has inspired so many, being kept out of public view?

First of all, it's long-standing NASA policy for all relatives at a shuttle launch. "It's just for privacy," said spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. "They are here in a private capacity."

Sometimes family members choose independently to make themselves available, she said, but most decide not to.

"They're not the spotlight," added space center spokesman Allard Beutel. "They're not the public figure."

Of course, Giffords is a special case. There's extraordinary public interest in her progress since that horrific Jan. 8 assassination attempt in Tucson, Ariz., and in the simultaneous story of husband Mark Kelly's journey into space -- a life-vs.-career dilemma like no other.

Details about Giffords' condition in the 3 1/2 months since she took a bullet to the head have been sparse. There have been no photos showing her face. A grainy video image purporting to show her slowly climbing stairs to board the plane for Florida earlier this week was the most visible and hopeful sign yet of her improvement.

Few would argue with a patient's right to privacy, even a public figure and officeholder like Giffords. But her neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Lemole, added another dimension to the privacy argument when asked recently if it wouldn't be beneficial for the public to see the effects of the shooting.

"I understand that would be useful to the public, but I also understand that a picture is worth a thousand words, and with those words would come rampant speculation," he told the Association of Health Care Journalists earlier this month. "If you release one picture, people start speculating on what you will or won't do, on what you can or can't do."

Giffords had a piece of her skull removed shortly after the shooting to allow room for brain swelling and has been wearing a helmet adorned with an Arizona state flag. Doctors said they expect to reattach the piece in May.

NASA officials said they still didn't know where Giffords or President Obama -- and his wife and two daughters -- would view today's launch. The congresswoman was expected to be in the general area of the presidential entourage.

Meanwhile, thousands of people streamed into the region for a chance to watch today's launch, set for 3:47 p.m.

Adding to the fever-pitch excitement: The first-ever visit by an entire presidential family.

As the countdown entered the final hours, forecasters revised their take on this afternoon's weather. There was a 30 percent chance that low clouds or stiff crosswinds could force a delay, a slightly deteriorating outlook. The storm that pummeled the South was expected to reach central Florida late Thursday -- although not nearly as strongly -- and be well past by the time NASA starts fueling Endeavour at dawn today.