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The congresswoman and the astronaut: A love story

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
  • The world has gotten a glimpse into the love affair of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly
  • The pair met in China in 2003, wed in 2007
  • Friends say Kelly is Giffords' "rock" and they are devoted to each other

(CNN) -- There's a moment from Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly's 2007 wedding that everyone seems to remember.

The pair stood happily beneath a wedding canopy saying their vows before Rabbi Stephanie Aaron at Agua Linda, an organic vegetable farm in Amado, Arizona.

Rep. Giffords was resplendent in a borrowed Vera Wang gown, and Capt. Kelly, an astronaut and Navy pilot, was sharp in his formal military attire.

Then it began to rain.

"They didn't care," recalled Carol West, a former Tucson city councilwoman who Giffords has called a mentor. "It was one of those quick rains that we have here in Arizona, and they just kept right on going."

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Friends say it's a scene that typifies the couple - the ability to weather a storm as long as they are together.

The world has gotten just a glimpse of their love and devotion in the days following an attack at an Arizona supermarket that left six people dead and 13 others - including Giffords - wounded.

One of the first images out of the hospital showed Kelly clutching his wife's hand as she lay critically injured from a gunshot that passed through her brain.

The picture managed to convey both strength and gentleness - traits that those who know the couple say helped draw the congresswoman and the astronaut together and enabled them over the years to straddle three states and two demanding careers.

Neither saw stars when they first met in 2003 in China. They were both members of the Young Leaders Forum for the National Committee on United States-China Relations.

He was a naval aviator and married father of two daughters living in Houston, and she was a vivacious Arizona state senator who had never been married but had no shortage of dates. They were cordial, but neither was at a place in their lives for romance to develop.

The following year the forum reconvened in Sedona, Arizona, and they reconnected. By then Kelly's first marriage had ended and the pair struck up a friendship.

"I had dated some big players, but they weren't really nice men, and I was a little gun-shy," Giffords told The New York Times. "Mark talked about his love for his two daughters, about sharing custody."

They began trading phone calls and e-mails, and she offered him advice on getting back into the dating pool. After Giffords broke up with a boyfriend, she invited Kelly on a tour of the Arizona State Prison.

"His father is in law enforcement, so she thought he would enjoy something like that," her friend Carol West said, explaining the seemingly odd choice for a first date.

Soon he was flying in from Houston to visit her whenever his schedule would allow. Go outside and look up in the sky, he would tell her, and as he flew over he would dip the plane's wing in salute to her.

She gushed to friends about his sense of humor and patience. How he never seemed to mind constantly being asked the questions that often get tossed at astronauts: What's it feel like in space? What does the Earth look like from up there?

The quieter of the two, Kelly in turn would watch proudly from the sidelines whenever she worked a room - going from table to table, group to group, making sure she touched as many people as possible.

"He's very protective of her, but he allows her to have her space," West said. "She's such a rock star, and I've been at dinner parties with the two of them and she eats like a bird. She'll be off talking to people and Mark is the one directing the waiters that it's OK to take away that big plate of food, just leave her salad."

Their romance carried them to the altar in 2007 with a wedding that drew about 300 guests and had touches that were typical "Gabby and Mark."

Giffords, devoted to being green, wore a recycled gown. Kelly clutched her tightly within the embrace of military sabers held by members of his shuttle crew as dusk fell. They made sure there were special amenities to make the event more enjoyable for guests, like fire pits for the kids to roast marshmallows.

"Even before the ceremony, she was out greeting folks, walking around," said Laurel Loew, whose family owns the farm where they married. "It was a lovely, lovely wedding."

They were an immediate power couple, the first politician-astronaut pair. Giffords set about triangulating her life, with her work in Washington, her constituents in Arizona and her husband in Houston. Likewise, Kelly had hours of flight time to log as part of his role as a NASA shuttle commander.

"They are both very driven people with very demanding careers," said Jonathan Lowet, director of Leadership Initiatives for the National Committee on United States-China Relations and a friend of the couple since 2004.

"I think that on that level they can really understand each other, and when they managed to have downtime and coordinate, it was nice to be able to spend time with one another," he said.

"We try to see each other if possible twice a month," Giffords said in 2009 in a publication for Army Well-Being, an organization that assists members of the military and their families. "That's our goal. But it's been more like once every three weeks. But I am very proud of what he does -- he serves his country with great honor and great distinction."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, has been friends with Giffords since 2005 and was in the hospital room when she opened her eyes for the first time following the shooting. Kelly, she said, has always been Giffords' "rock, and that's what he's being right now."

"The best way to describe them is that it's like watching two people in a perpetual state of newlywed," she said. "They get precious little time together, so what time they do get is precious. They have so much fun together."

Schultz said the pair are so special, separately and together, and the perfect complement. If you didn't know them, she said, you would have no idea how accomplished they were because they are so down to earth.

She said it seemed only fitting that Giffords' eyes were filled with the sight of her husband urging her on the moment she was able to fully open them. And there's no doubt he'll be there as she makes her recovery, holding her hand, and remembering, perhaps, the inscription on the ring he slipped on her finger on their wedding day:

"You're the closest to heaven that I've ever been."