From Space to Washington –
Captain Mark Kelly Takes on a New Endeavour

Former astronaut and pilot and now Arizona Senator Mark Kelly. Photo: Space Explored.

Mark Kelly is the new Senator-elect for Arizona, filling the late Senator John McCain’s seat.

Mark Kelly – just elected to the U.S. Senate – had already lived quite a life. He’d served as a fighter pilot, flying over three dozen combat missions during Operation Desert Storm.

Then he applied to become an astronaut with NASA. As did his twin brother Scott. They were both accepted – the first time in the history of the celebrated space program that two relatives had ever been selected.

Not bad for two brothers who told their grandmother they would be going up in space – back when they were eight years old, as proud father, Richard Kelly, told Irish America back in 2006.

The Irish American twins spent the late 90s and 2000s logging millions of hours of space flight, orbiting the earth hundreds of times. 

Expedition 45/46 Commander, Astronaut Scott Kelly along with his brother, former Astronaut Mark Kelly speak to news media outlets about Scott Kelly’s 1-year mission aboard the International Space Station. Photo Date: January 19, 2015. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

Scott Kelly went on to spend a year in space alongside Russian counterpart Mikhail Korienko. As twins, Scott and Mark have also made themselves available for groundbreaking studies on the long-term effects of space travel on the human body.

Back on earth, Mark Kelly began dating a congresswoman named Gabby Giffords in 2003. He joined her on campaign trips. She went to his space launches, and once even recommended the song “Beautiful Day” by Irish rockers U2 serve as a mission theme song.

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz, and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, exit the stage after speaking during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 27, 2016. Photo: Coloradopolitics.com.

Giffords and Kelly were married in 2007.

And so, Kelly was already a very busy and very accomplished man on that January day in 2011 when he received the terrible news – that his wife had been shot along with nearly 20 other people at a constituent meeting in Tucson.

A new phase in Mark Kelly’s extraordinary journey had begun, one which culminated earlier this month with a U.S. Senate victory over Republican Martha McSally.

“This doesn’t feel like a typical election night. And this hasn’t been a typical election year. That’s why tonight is not about celebrating. Tonight is about getting to work,” Kelly told supporters afterward. Kelly also cited fellow veteran and Irish American – and former Arizona senator –John McCain as an inspiration.

Photo: MSNBC on Twitter

On Twitter, following his brother’s Senate victory, Scott Kelly recalled his time at the International Space Center – “a place built by diversity”– and was “struck with awe at how we came together & accomplished this great feat.”

He added: “If we can do this, we can do anything if we commit ourselves and work together.”

This was just the latest part of the Kelly brothers’ extraordinary journey, which began in northern New Jersey. Trailblazing and bravery were in Scott and Mark’s blood. Their father, Richard, had served as a Navy paratrooper. Their mother, Patricia (nee McAvoy), was born in the Bronx, and was the first woman to serve on the West Orange, N.J. police force.

Mark and Scott Kelly as young boys in West Orange, New Jersey.

Scott and Mark were clearly influenced by their mother’s determination.

“She was the first woman to pass the men’s physical fitness test,” Scott told the Star-Ledger newspaper following their mother’s death in February 2019. “It’s not like she was particularly athletic. She just worked really hard at it.” Mark added: “She was the person behind me who  would always say, ‘Gabby’s going to get better.’ My mother, like my wife, they’re very positive people. They don’t let anything get them down.”

Their first step to the stars began with distinguished military careers. Each brother achieved the rank of captain.

But the sky was not the limit for the Kelly brothers, so they both became NASA astronauts – and the only siblings to travel in space.

Meanwhile, when Mark Kelly met Gabby Giffords, he knew there were some differences.

“I figured the whole world looked like our neighborhood: a third Jewish, a third Italian, and a third Irish,” Kelly wrote of his upbringing “on the lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder.” 

“Gabby,” on the other hand, was “a child of the desert,” who “had her own horse growing up.”

Ultimately their connection was strong and powerful.

“She had it all,” he later told the New York Times. “Beautiful, smart, hard-working, balanced, fun to be with, and she laughed at my jokes.”

When they married in 2007, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich offered up a memorable toast.

“To a bride who moves at a velocity that exceeds that of anyone else in Washington, and a groom who moves at a velocity that exceeds 17,000 miles per hour.”

Giffords recalled: “I felt a huge sense of relief. I had found someone like me. We’re both really curious. We’re focused on the same things.”

But horror was looming

Mark Kelly would later tell TV journalist Diane Sawyer that he and his wife had talked “dozens of times” about how “risky” Giffords’ job could be.

“Someday,” Kelly recalled Giffords saying, “I’m really worried that somebody’s going to come up to me at one of these events with a gun.” 

In the end, six people were killed in the January 8, 2011 shooting – including a nine-year-old girl named Christina Taylor Green.

Giffords was shot in the head, by an assailant who, it turned out, had an obsession with her. There was even an initial report that Giffords had died.

Kelly, who was training for the final flight of Endeavour when the shooting occurred told ABC that he had watched television that declared Giffords had lost her life in the shooting. “I just walked into the bathroom, and, you know, broke down.”

Giffords, though, survived – and a new phase of their life had begun. 

Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D.-Ariz.) delivers opening remarks while seated next to her husband, former U.S. Navy Captain Mark Kelly, during a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary committee about guns and violence on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan.30, 2013. Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters.

Five months after the shooting, on May 16, 2011, the space shuttle Endeavour took off on its final flight with its crew of six astronauts, led by commander Mark Kelly.

He recorded a message to his wife from the International Space Station that was later played to introduce “Beautiful Day” at U2 concerts. He referenced poignant lyrics from David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity,” saying, “I’m looking forward to coming home. Tell my wife I love her very much. She knows.”

The Endeavor flight also marked Kelly’s last space trip. He retired from NASA on June 21, 2011.

“For the next two years, the most basic life-or-death questions consumed our family: Would Gabby survive the bullet through her brain? Would she walk again? Smile that smile that won my heart? Hug her friends?”  Kelly wrote in the 2014 book Enough: Our Fight to Keep America Safe from Gun Violence, by this time he and Giffords had become prominent gun control advocates.

And now, with Mark’s election to the U.S. Senate, a new journey begins for this dynamic pair.

As Kelly said following his election win: “If there’s anything I learned from my mother, and serving at NASA, and what I learned from Gabby, is … there’s nothing we cannot achieve if we set our minds to it and work together.” ♣

Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Captain Mark Kelly during his retirement ceremony in the Secretary of War Suite of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, in Washington, D.C., Oct. 6, 2011. Kelly was presented the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross medals by the Vice President and Kelly’s wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, for his 25 years of service with the Navy and NASA. Photo: NASA.

Tom Deignan is an author, teacher, and columnist for the Irish Voice and Irish America (tdeignan.blogspot.com).

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