By Dale Hemmila
If space is really the “final frontier” — thank you Star Trek — then there are probably few people more qualified to talk about it than Captain Mark Kelly.
Kelly was the speaker at the kickoff of the 2019-2020 Port Huron Town Hall lecture series at McMorran Place, where he shared some of his experience and life lessons learned as an astronaut and also as the husband of former congresswoman Gabby Gifford, who survived a 2011 assassination attempt.
Kelly, a four-time space shuttle veteran, served as shuttle pilot twice and as the commander of two missions, including the space shuttle Endeavour’s final flight in 2011. His missions included supply deliveries to the international space station, and he logged millions of miles of space travel during his NASA career.
Kelly said this all began with his high school goal to be the first person to walk on the planet Mars.
“I really believed if I worked hard enough and took the right path, maybe I would make it to Mars someday,” he said. “I left NASA several years ago without ever making it to Mars, but I did get kind of close and made it into space four times. My plan was to become a Navy aviator and then a test pilot and then an astronaut.”
Following college graduation, he joined the Navy and began training as a Navy pilot.
But he found out early on that he was “not a very good pilot.”
He recalled his flight instructor’s message following Kelly’s first bungled attempt to land a jet on an aircraft carrier.
“His first words to me were, ‘Are you sure this career is for you?’” Kelly recalled. “But you know what, I didn’t give up. I learned how good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indication of how good you can become.
“And I’m a prime example of someone who was able to overcome a serious lack of aptitude with practice and persistence and just not giving up.”
That attitude apparently served Kelly well as he went on to fly 39 successful combat missions in a Navy A6 Intruder attack aircraft, dodging missiles and anti-aircraft fire during the war with Iraq.
It also served him well as a pilot on the space shuttle, comparing the danger of a space flight mission as “Kind of like storming the beach at Normandy.”
As a combat pilot and later as an astronaut, Kelly said he thought he had a risky job. He was brought down to earth in January of 2011.
“As it turned out, my wife, Gabby, was the one who would nearly lose her life serving our country,” he said.
Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was participating in a “Congress on Your Corner” event to meet with constituents at a Tucson, Arizona grocery store when she was shot in the head in an assassination attempt. In all, 19 people were shot that day. Six of them died.
Kelly received the alarming phone call while at home in Houston, where he was training for his final space shuttle mission. Within a short period of time, he was able to use a friend’s private plane to fly to Arizona to be with his critically injured wife. While monitoring the news during the flight, television media reported that Giffords had died. A half hour later the news came back to say they had made a mistake and that Giffords was actually in surgery.
“Now the media shouldn’t be pronouncing that people are dead; they should probably leave that up to doctors,” Kelly said. With a smile he added: “I decided then that my wife Gabby was not going to get taken out by cable news.”
When Kelly arrived at the hospital, he found he was at the beginning of a period that would find him making the medical decisions related to his wife’s care including working with the medical professionals who would ultimately be operating on Giffords and providing the other medical treatments that would save her life and ultimately aid in her recovery.
Kelly, now his wife’s “primary caregiver,” leaned on the decision making processes he learned at NASA following the Challenger accident, and particularly following the Columbia tragedy.
“We learned a lot about making decisions,” he said. “And I mean making bad decisions.”
That led Kelly to working with the entire team of medical professionals from nurses, to residents to surgeons as he weighed the decision-making for his wife’s care. By getting a variety of opinions and understanding the medical procedures from all different angles, he said he felt better prepared to make the choices he did.
As it turned out with those many decisions and the work by the medical professionals, Giffords not only survived but was able to walk back on to the floor of the House of Representatives to vote on legislation in August of 2011.
“I couldn’t have been more proud of my wife Gabby after everything that she had been through to just show up and do her job,” Kelly said.
While Giffords had been rehabbing in Houston, Kelly was able to do his job, too. He had rejoined his crew to prepare for the final mission of the space shuttle Endeavor and what would be his last trip into space.
On that mission he took the time, while traveling at 25 times the speed of sound, to reflect on what he saw outside his window.
“We’re in orbit around this incredible planet,” he recalled. “It’s such an amazing thing to see this big round ball floating there in the blackness of space and you realize that all seven and half billion of us are living on an island…and make no mistake: we have no place else to go. We really need to do a much better job of taking care of this planet; it’s the only one we’ve got.”
Kelly’s presentation to Town Hall was sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, sometimes inspirational.
As he finished his talk he said he had asked his wife what she would like to tell his Michigan audience and she had asked him to close with this message: “Be bold, be courageous and be your best.”
The 2019-2020 Town Hall season will continue on November 11th with CBS News “On the Road” correspondent Steve Hartman.