Shuttle commander abruptly opts out of media interviews
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: March 23, 2011
Astronaut Mark Kelly, scheduled to command the shuttle Endeavour's 25th and final mission next month, abruptly removed himself from planned round-robin media interviews Thursday, citing a reluctance to discuss his personal life and that of his wife, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, NASA officials announced Wednesday.
The Arizona Democrat was gravely injured during a shooting spree in Tucson in January. She is recovering in Houston and during a Feb. 4 news conference, Mark Kelly announced he planned to command Endeavour as scheduled. But he would not discuss his wife's recovery or what input she might have had on his decision to fly aboard the shuttle.
"I just don't want to go into details about her condition," Kelly told reporters. "Then people speculate on prognosis. It's just something I don't want to address. We had a discussion but beyond that, it's not something I feel comfortable talking about."
Asked if his wife might attend his launching, Kelly said "absolutely! I have every intention that she'll be there for the launch. I've already talked to her doctors about it. There really shouldn't be any reason why she can't go to the launch."
Kelly's flight -- and Giffords' possible appearance at the Kennedy Space Center for launch -- has generated widespread interest and fueled higher participation than usual in traditional pre-flight briefings planned for Thursday at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Kelly conducted several media interviews on his own in the aftermath of the shooting. But the planned interviews Thursday were the first making him available to a large number of reporters.
Before every shuttle flight, NASA holds briefings to help reporters understand the content of a mission and to provide an opportunity for one-on-one round-robin interviews with the crew. It is the only opportunity most reporters have to chat with shuttle crew members for preview stories and backgrounders.
A NASA spokesman said no other shuttle astronaut had ever declined to participate in the one-on-one interviews and dozens of reporters and photographers were expected to be on hand Thursday. Why Kelly waited until the day before the long-planned interviews to make his decision was not known.
"As you may know, Mark Kelly has expressed concern, from his past media experience and recent interviews conducted with his brother Scott, that it is difficult to get the media to focus attention on his mission rather than personal family matters," a NASA spokesman said. "He made a request to NASA to cancel these media interviews."
Kelly will participate in a crew news conference and his crewmates -- pilot Gregory H. Johnson, Michael Fincke, Roberto Vittori, Andrew Feustel and Gregory Chamitoff -- will participate in the one-on-one interview sessions as planned. A morning network-only event with the entire crew was canceled.
It remains to be seen whether reporters will honor expected requests not to ask about Giffords during the crew news conference Thursday or what Kelly might do if questions are, in fact, asked.
It also remains to be seen whether Kelly will participate in a traditional launch pad question-and-answer session at the Kennedy Space Center March 31 during training before a dress-rehearsal countdown April 1.
As for Scott Kelly's decision to interrupt his own interviews Tuesday, leaving several news organizations with empty slots in their morning talk show schedules, the NASA spokesman cited a similar reluctance to field repeated questions about Giffords.
"He stopped his (interviews) because of the media, despite being requested by both public affairs and by Scott himself to focus on his flight aboard the station and not on his sister-in-law's condition, the media continued to ask question about his family members. Scott decided to opt out of the rest of the interviews."