The interactions with astronaut Mark Kelly are new signs of Giffords' impressive progress in recovering from a gunshot wound to the head at a political event nine days ago. Giffords still cannot speak, because of a tube in her throat that is helping her breathe.
"She's in the ICU. You know, gone through this traumatic injury. And she spent 10 minutes giving me a neck massage," Kelly explained in an interview with Diane Sawyer to air Tuesday on ABC. "It's so typical of her that no matter how bad the situation might be for her, you know, she's looking out for other people."
Such encounters indicate higher levels of functioning, implying that "she's recognizing him and interacting, perhaps in an old familiar way with him," said Dr. Michael Lemole.
Dr. Randall Friese said Kelly also told doctors he saw Giffords smile. He said sometimes people see what they want to see, but that "if he says she's smiling, I buy it."
Kelly has also been essential in helping Giffords' staff through the tragedy, said Mark Kimble, a Tucson staff member who stood only a few feet from Giffords when she was shot.
"There is not a doubt in his mind and not a doubt in any of our minds that she's going to be back," Kimble said. "He's been cheering us up. He'll come over and when we're down, he'll say, 'Gabby's going to make it, Gabby's a little better today.' That's a big help to all of us."
The steady progress for Giffords came on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to remember the legacy of the civil rights leader who was killed by an assassin's bullet 42 years ago.
Political leaders invoked the assassination attempt against Giffords as they asked Americans to recommit to King's values of nonviolence, tolerance, compassion and justice.
"Last week a senseless rampage in Tucson reminded us that more than 40 years after Dr. King's own tragic death, our struggle to eradicate violence and to promote peace goes on," Attorney General Eric Holder said at King's former church in Atlanta.
Doctors upgraded Giffords' condition from critical to serious over the weekend and say they carried out three successful procedures that demonstrate she is recovering well.
A breathing tube was moved from her mouth to her throat along with a separate feeding tube that was shifted from her nose to her stomach. Dr. Randall Friese said removing the tubes in her nose and mouth reduces the risks of infections.
Doctors also said they performed a surgery on Giffords' eye socket to remove bone fragments to relieve pressure on her eye. There were no complications from the surgery; doctors needed to perform the eye procedure all along but waited until her condition improved to do it.
Elsewhere, doctors have transplanted the corneas from the youngest victim of the Jan. 8 shooting that left a total of six dead and 13 wounded. Christina Taylor Green's father said Monday that the Donor Network of Arizona told him and his wife that the transplants from the 9-year-old have saved the eyesight of two children.
Also, more details emerged Monday about one of shooting victims who became distraught and was arrested during a televised town hall meeting.
James Eric Fuller, a military veteran and self-described liberal, started ranting at the end of the program Saturday. He took a picture of Tucson tea party leader Trent Humphries and yelled "you're dead."
Fuller apologized Monday through his girlfriend, Dorothy Deruyter. Fuller has been in a hospital since being involuntarily committed Saturday for a mental health evaluation but wrote a statement and called Deruyter, who read it to The Associated Press on Monday.
Fuller apologized to Humphries for his "misplaced outrage."
"It was not in the spirit of our allegiance and warm feelings of each other as citizens of this great country," Fuller said in the statement.
The suspect in the shooting, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, remained jailed in a federal lockup in Phoenix. Investigators have described him as a mentally unstable man who was kicked out a community college last year and became increasingly erratic in recent months.
He apparently became obsessed with inflicting violence on Giffords since attending one of her campaign events in 2007.
Kelly said he would be willing to meet with the parents of Loughner, who have remained in seclusion since the shooting. Kelly, who has two teenage daughters from a previous marriage, said the parents have to be in a tremendous amount of pain.
"I don't think it's their fault. It's not the parents fault," Kelly told ABC. "You know, I'd like to think I'm a person that's, you know, somewhat forgiving. And, I mean, they've got to be hurting in this situation as much as much as anybody."
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this report.