Astronaut Mark Kelly was guided by the women in his life

Mark Kelly


BG Independent News

To hear Mark Kelly tell it he’s lucky to be alive, never mind standing before an admiring crowd speaking.

In his Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives talk Tuesday at Bowling Green State University, he spoke glowingly of his wife, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, and his mother, and spoke with wry self-deprecation of his own failings and how he overcame them.

Growing up in New Jersey he lacked motivation, he said.

His father was a stereotypical Irish detective who’d come home about once a year cast on his hand. ”Fighting crime,” he would tell his twin sons, Mark and Scott. They would later learn that these were as much the results of bar fights as crime fighting.

Kelly’s mother worked as a secretary and waitress before she decided she too wanted to become a police officer.

A small woman she would have to scale a seven-foot, two-inch wall in nine seconds to qualify. Unbeknownst to her, her husband made it an inch taller. When it came time for the test, she scaled it in under five seconds, faster than most of the male candidates. She became one of the first female police officers in New Jersey.

“That was the first time in my life I saw the power of having a goal and a plan and what it meant to work really hard for something,” Kelly said. “It certainly motivated for me.”

He set a goal of becoming a Navy pilot and beyond that a test pilot and beyond that an astronaut. His ultimate goal was to be the first person to walk on Mars. After graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1986, he headed off for pilot training

There were snags along the way. He was not a gifted pilot. After his first go at landing on an aircraft carrier, the instructor pilot asked him: “Are you sure this career is for you?”

Still, “I did not give up,” Kelly said. “How good you are at the beginning of something you try is not a good indicator of how good you can become. I’m a prime example of somebody who’s able to overcome a serious lack of aptitude with practice, persistence, and just not giving up. Always remember effort, that counts twice”

Later on his first combat mission during the Gulf War, he made an almost fatal decision. In order to avoid running a gauntlet of Iraqi missile defenses after attacking his target, he decided to return to his aircraft carrier by heading through Iranian air space. His navigator questioned the decision, but he continued anyways.

As he flew back, he heard radio traffic about an enemy fighter heading out of Iranian air space and fighters on their way to intercept it.  That Iraqi plane had no chance, he thought to himself. Then he realized the plane’s coordinates matched his own. He was that “enemy” aircraft.

“Do not shoot down the moron in Iranian air space,” Kelly hollered into the radio.

“There’s never an excuse for not communicating with the people you work with. … That night I didn’t it, and it almost cost me my life.”

That mission also provided another lesson. On the way to the target, a missile was headed directly for his plane.  He told his navigator, who responded: ““Roger, I’m tracking the target.”

He was leaving it up to the pilot to evade the missile. “He was focusing on the stuff he could control and not the stuff outside his control.”

Kelly met his wife on trip to China. Unlike him, she was a high achiever from early on and was now an Arizona state senator, CEO of her family business, with her eye on serving in the U.S. Congress. “Like my mother, she had goals.”

And though it seemed like he was the one with the dangerous job, “it was my wife, Gabby, was the one who nearly lost her life serving her country.”

In January, just starting her third term in Congress, an assailant shot her and killed six others, including a 9-year-old girl. As Kelly and the other family members flying to be with her, cable news networks reported that Giffords had died. It wasn’t for another 30 minutes that Kelly learned that she was still alive and in surgery.

“My wife, Gabby, is not going to be taken out by cable news,” he said.

Kelly now found himself as caregiver and primary decision maker about her care.

He said he wondered if he had the patience to go through the long recovery process. But he remembered a lesson his wife had taught him. They had traveled to London to give physicist Stephen Hawking a Royal Academy of Science gold medal that Kelly had carried into space.

At the reception, Kelly approached Hawking to greet him. Hawkins, because of a debilitating disease, can only move a few tiny muscles in his face and must communicate through a computer. Kelly greeted him and got no response. Kelly was flummoxed. Then Giffords approached. She knelt next to Hawking and greeted him. Then waited. She waited five minutes before Hawkins’ computer generated voice responded.

This was the kind of patience Kelly needed.

Despite his initial decision to step aside from his command of the last flight of the Endeavor space shuttle, he decided to go through with it. He faced the question other caregivers face: “When do you reclaim some form of your own life?”

Going into space, he noted, was not without its risk. Someone once commented that flying the space shuttle was less dangerous than driving on the highway.  As someone who had to go to recover the bodies of three astronauts and friends after Columbia shuttle crash, he knows better. Flying the shuttle is about as dangerous as landing on the beach at Normandy on D-Day.

But it has its rewards.

He spoke glowingly of looking down at the earth and realizing its 7.5 billion inhabitants were living on an island on space. “We have nowhere to go. We have to do a better job of taking care of this planet.”

Giffords decided to make a return to Congress in August, 2011, to vote a measure to lift the debt ceiling. She decided at the last minute to make the trip. Kelly had to pack for her – “the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done.”

When her young female staff opened the suitcase, they realized they’d have to make a trip to the mall so she’d have something to wear.

“I could never be more proud of my wife, Gabby,” Kelly said. “After everything she’d been through “to be there on that day just to do her job.”

Kelly gave her the last word. Giffords had instructed him to tell the audience in Bowling Green: “Be bold. Be courageous. Be your best.”