Mark Kelly

Jeff Cunningham
May 31 · 13 min read

Interviewer: I’m here with Mark Kelly, world renowned astronaut, naval aviator, space shuttle commander, husband to former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and now announced running for the U.S. senator from Arizona. Mark, tell me, where do you get your career advice?

Interviewee: Well, I’d say I get a lot of it from my mother. My mother’s somebody who taught me that you can really achieve things that might seem really difficult. Growing up, she was a secretary and waitress, and had these jobs at the same time, and juggled them. At one point, she decided she wanted to become a police officer like my dad. This was New Jersey in the 1970s, and for a woman to become a cop — really difficult thing to do.

My mom had to pass this test. Part of this test was a physical fitness test that required she climb over this seven foot, two inch wall. Now, my mother was about 4 feet, 13 inches tall. She had to get over this wall. To help her out, my dad built a replica of this thing in our backyard. He didn’t tell her he made in an inch higher at seven foot, three. I watched my mother try to get over this thing. Initially, she couldn’t.

After months and months of hard work, she did better than almost all the men. She became one of the first female police officers in that part of New Jersey. It was from my mother that I learned the power of having a goal and a plan and what hard work could really do.

Interviewer: Now, both your parents were police officers. Is that why you and your brother were so well-behaved throughout high school?

Interviewee: Well, we weren’t the most well-behaved. I wouldn’t say we were “bad” but we never really got into trouble. At the same time, we didn’t initially start off as the greatest students. It was something that we — it was a progression for us. This was New Jersey that we lived in. We grew up in the — one of those neighborhoods you see on the T.V. show the Sopranos. Having two parents that are police officers in a small town keeps you well-contained.

Interviewer: I read your brother’s book, which I thought was fantastic. At what point did your life send you in the direction of becoming a naval aviator?

Interviewee: Those things are a progression. I remember being pretty young and talking to my dad about being an astronaut. For some reason, I always associated astronauts with the Navy. I remember seeing images of people like Alan Shepard, first American to fly in space, taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier. Since I wanted to be an astronaut, I also wanted to have an exciting career. I realized that the likelihood of becoming an astronaut was pretty remote. The odds are not in anybody’s favor. I also wanted to serve my country. My grandfathers both served in World War II.

One was in the Atlantic on a merchant ship, which is a pretty dangerous thing to do. My other grandfather was on a Navy frigate in the Pacific. Public service was something that was just part of our family. My parents were cops.

Interviewer: When you chose to become an aviator, started to fly on an aircraft carriers, and later you became an astronaut. You flew on the shuttle. You commanded the shuttle. Were you fully aware of the risks you were taking? Can you tell us about that?

Interviewee: Yeah, you’re aware of the risk involved. I was a senior in college when the Challenger blew up on liftoff, shortly after liftoff. I’ll never forget where I was on that day. Then, I was selected to be an astronaut about 10 years, a little over 10 years later. When you fly in the space shuttle for the first time, if you don’t realize the risk, you probably shouldn’t be in the job. Clearly, it is so dangerous as a profession that you fully need to understand what you’re getting yourself into. It’d be foolish not to.

Yeah, we all get it. We’re really well-prepared to deal with malfunctions that happen aboard the space shuttle. The space shuttle is incredibly crew-intensive. What I mean by that are there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of procedures, the checklist for the space shuttle that we take onboard, paper checklist, probably about, if you stack them all up would be six feet tall. We train for thousands of hours to prepare for a space shuttle flight.

When things go wrong, we are very well-prepared to deal with it for a lot of scenarios. Then, there’s the stuff where we’re not prepared for, which is what happened during Challenger. What happened again, similar — not exactly the kind of thing. They had a problem during liftoff. Put a hole in the wing. Then, the vehicle came apart, because the wing came apart during re-entry.

Those things, there’s nothing that we could do about. Your approach is, “Okay, I’m really well-prepared for this. If something bad happens, we can deal with it,” but there’s stuff we can’t deal with. You just accept that that’s the risk.

Interviewer: If you compare flying a fighter jet and landing on an aircraft carrier to flying the Space shuttle, what order of magnitude of difference in complexity?

Interviewee: Oh, that’s a good question. Operation Desert Storm, which I flew in, I think at the end of the day turned out to be about a 1 in 5,000. Two orders of magnitude, 100 times. Complexity, the Space shuttle was also — it is by far the most complex vehicle I’ve ever flown. One of the reasons is we have to have redundancy, because we are in a vacuum. We’re going 17,500 miles an hour. You can’t just say, “Hey, I wanna land right now. I wanna go to this closest airport.”

It really takes a long time to do that. We have a lot of system redundancy. Every switch has multiple power sources. Let’s say the pumps and the hydraulic system, for instance, have multiple power sources and computer connectivity. It’s just a really complicated thing. It seems to be 100 more times complicated than any other vehicle I’ve ever flown.

Interviewer: Do you choose the team on the Space shuttle or do you meet the team?

Interviewee: The Astronaut Office is a — it’s a contained group of people. The numbers vary. I think at the maximum, there was about 150 astronauts. That was in the late 1990s. Today, I’d say the number’s probably 40 or 50. We all share one floor of an office building. It’s like being in a big squadron in the Navy or in the Air Force. For somebody in the military, it feels like I’m in a civilian organization.

For somebody who is a civilian astronaut, it feels like I just joined the Marine Corps. It’s a tight-knit group of people. The chief astronaut generally makes the flight assignments. However, when you’re the commander, when you’re assigned as the commander of the space shuttle, there’s some discussion of who your other crew members are gonna be. You have some say.

It depends on who the boss is. It depends on who the commander is. You have some say as to who your other crew members are gonna be.

Interviewer: When you’re commander, are you in charge of the personal dynamics on the shuttle among the team?

Interviewee: In charge of everything. If it goes really well, your crew members did a great job. If it goes really poorly, you messed up.

Interviewer: Now, the Russians maintain their commitment to space travel. The United States pulled back. Can you talk about that, and why, and whether the future holds a different prospect?

Interviewee: We operate a space station in orbit. The Russians are our partners in the space station, as are 16 other countries. The part of the space station that we manage has all the laboratories that matter, and the airlock, and most of the significant systems on the space station. We paid the biggest expense to build this thing. We manage the important part of this. Maybe the Russians would say otherwise, but they’re our partner.

We haven’t pulled back. We retired the space shuttle for a very specific reason. That’s because we had our second accident. We didn’t wanna have a third accident. The space shuttle was designed to fly for 100 flights each. When I landed Endeavor on its last flight, that was its 25th mission. Why didn’t it go 100 flights? Well, it wasn’t designed to fly for 30 years. We started to have things that just were breaking down. Imagine, who drives a 30-year-old car?

Not many people. My wife does. She’s got a 1963 Corvair that we still take out. Not many people drive a 30-year-old car. We’re dealing with a 30-year-old space shuttle. That’s why we retired the space shuttle. It took us a while to get back to where we were gonna fly people on U.S. rockets from U.S. soil. That’s gonna happen probably — maybe the beginning of next year.

Interviewer: You and your brother were supposed to rendezvous in space. What happened?

Interviewee: I was assigned as the commander of STS-134. I was supposed to launch and land before my brother launched on his third space flight, his first long-duration mission. Then, like what happens with space shuttle flights, they slip. Eventually, my launch date moved into the beginning of his six-month increment that he was gonna be in space. Then, it moved to the middle of his six-month increment.

Then, it moved to the end of his six-month increment. Then, it fell off the back. Then, we weren’t gonna be in space anymore. There was this time, I think for about six to nine months where it looked like we were gonna be in space together. It wasn’t planned ahead of time.

Interviewer: I’m estimating you’ve flown in space 20 million miles in your life and maybe —

Interviewee: Twenty-two and a half.

Interviewer: Twenty-two and a half million miles. What kind of frequent flyer plan are you on, by the way?

Interviewee: Yeah, you don’t get one, unfortunately.

Interviewer: Most of us have not seen the Planet Earth as you have. What did it mean to you when you first looked back? What did it mean to you the last time you saw it?

Interviewee: You know certain parts of your life that you can remember very distinctly. One of them for me is my first flight STS-108, maybe three or four minutes after launch, and you’re going uphill, and you’re accelerating through Mach 15. The space shuttle would then — it was upside down, but it would roll heads-up. I remember, as we rolled heads-up looking over my right shoulder. I was a pilot, so I’m sitting in the right seat, and seeing this round ball just floating there.

It’s pretty incredible. You look back and there’s the blackness of space. Who knows? Maybe infinite, we don’t know the size of the universe. We know the size of our solar system, our galaxy, but just this black void behind it. It’s really — you really feel like — you look down, and we’re all in this together. We’re floating around on a rock in our solar system. People should not be confused. There might be some people say, “Hey, we’re going to Mars someday.” We’re not going to Mars.

We’ll send people to Mars, hopefully sooner rather than later. As a species, we are not moving off this planet. This is our home. That is a very — a really strong feeling you get when you see the Earth for the first time.

Interviewer: Aren’t you involved in some way with SpaceX?

Interviewee: I was until last week. I was on SpaceX’s Crew Safety Advisory Panel. I was a consultant with SpaceX for the last, four, five, maybe six years. It’s been a while. They’ve done some remarkable things. I didn’t think in the beginning they’d be able to orbit a vehicle and get it back safety. Then, I didn’t think they’d be able to rendezvous with the space station. After they proved that they could do that, it’s like, “Wow, this is a really serious company who knows that they’re doing.” Elon Musk and SpaceX has really changed rocket science for the better. We’re becoming one of the most — as a country, if SpaceX is — these are jobs for Americans, good paying jobs. We’re now able to launch payloads into space at a much reduced cost than even the Russians can do.

Interviewer: How did someone in a private company managed to do something that’s so difficult?

Interviewee: I think in his case, he’s just a really strong-willed person who’s very smart. He’s also the chief engineer of SpaceX. He knows what he’s doing. He works incredibly hard. I think, unlike other CEOs, he’s a real visionary. He wants to do something, and he has it in his mind, whether it’s landing the rocket back next to the launch pad or getting back the fairing and having it captured — caught by a boat.

They haven’t actually proven they could do that yet, but I’m sure they will in time. He’s got in his mind what he wants this to be and do. He pushes his people to do that.

Interviewer: Do you think he deals with the complexity of space travel differently?

Interviewee: No, I think he realizes what he’s getting himself into here. The complexity is about to go up dramatically for them when they launch people. That’s a whole nother thing. Now you have people onboard. You just gotta make sure you do this as safely as possible.

Interviewer: When you’re in space, you couldn’t be at home, which meant you spent a lot of time away from your family. How do you deal with that?

Interviewee: A lot of people in their careers spend a lot of way from their family. It might be a guy driving an 18-wheeler down the highway who’s spending 80 percent of his time away from home, people who serve in the military over in Iraq and Afghanistan, multiple tours. We’ve been at war now in Afghanistan for coming up on 17 years. You have a lot of soldiers that are serving their country in a very difficult environment.

They’re spending a lot of time away from their family. It’s serving your country, an important thing to do.

Interviewer: Do you wonder, a lot of people may not realize the sacrifice that people in your previous role, people in the military make.

Interviewee: I think they do. I’ve noticed that, especially over the last 20 years, that people are very appreciative of people that serve in the United States military. I think people get that.

Interviewer: On January 8, 2011, you happened to be in Houston. Your wife, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was giving a talk at 10:00 am here in Tucson. Can you tell us about that day?

Interviewee: It was a day much like today. I think it was a sunny day but cold. Gabby went to do this thing she called “Congress on Your Corner,” which is — pretty basic thing in a democracy is that you should meet with the people that you represent to allow them access and to allow them to ask questions. Gabby did that on a regular basis. She’d just been sworn into her third term in congress.

I think she was sworn in on a Tuesday. This was now Saturday morning. I was at home in Houston. I’d just gotten off the phone with Gabby. I knew she was going up to the Safeway at Oracle and Ina Road, on the corner here, be about 10 miles from where we’re sitting right now. A young guy showed up. A young man, who was clearly mentally ill, showed up, shot Gabby in the head. In 15 seconds, shot 6 people, and killed them, and injured 12 others, 13 if you count Gabby.

At that point, it drastically, and dramatically, and permanently changed both of our lives. I got a call from Gabby’s chief of staff who told me that Gabby’s been shot. I called her back a little bit later, and then she told me Gabby was shot in the head. It was at that point I realized, this is gonna be the biggest challenge of both of our lives, certainly for Gabby to survive. Then, it was gonna drastically change things for both of us.

Interviewer: On your way out, you were informed that she had died.

Interviewee: Yeah. On the airplane ride from Houston to Tucson, which is about a two-hour flight, for about 30 minutes, yeah, we thought that Gabby — ’cause the media had reported that she had died.

Interviewer: At some point, you started a foundation, one of whose goals was to communicate the need for gun control.

Interviewee: Well, I don’t like to use the word “control.” People don’t like to be controlled. I don’t. I think most gun owners don’t. I’m a gun owner. I own probably more firearms than your average Arizonan. The Second Amendment is important. It’s a right that responsible people have and should continue to have. At the same time, we have nearly 40,000 people shot and killed every year, another 110,000 shot and injured.

It costs us probably hundreds of billions of dollars a year. The loss of life is just — especially of children is just unacceptable. We should do something about it. The answer isn’t more guns in more places. We know that where there are more guns there’s more gun violence. In the states that have the strongest laws, have the lowest level of gun violence. States like Hawaii, Massachusetts.

They have about three people per 100,000 per year die from gun violence. The states with the highest death rate, those states are Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi. The number’s over 20. Think about that. That’s significantly higher. We know what works. We know what doesn’t. Loosening the gun laws, putting guns in more places just means more people get shot, and then more people die.

We know what works. You can do this in a way that respects people’s Second Amendment rights, but keeps people, and communities, and kids in schools safer.

Interviewer: When you thought about running for the senate, where there any role models that you looked at or were inspired by?

Interviewee: Well, certainly, I guess — I’m not gonna compare myself to John Glenn, but obviously an astronaut who was later a senator. A guy I really respected a lot, a hero of mine growing up. I am also inspired by those senators and members of congress, like my wife, who would work across the aisle to get things done and not be a total partisan and the person that refuses to compromise. People like Gabby Giffords, John McCain, and others. People in that mold are the people that I look up to as the folks that represent us.

[End of Audio]

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