U2’s “Beautiful Day” blasted on the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall stage in Sarasota, Fla., as a video montage of Capt. Mark Kelly’s life between January 2011 and today flashed on screen. He was in town as part of the Ringling College Library Association’s Town Hall Lecture Series and those of us backstage felt the energy and grooved to the music as the retired astronaut pumped himself up to prepare for his onstage lecture.
Man, he was ready! Wearing his blue NASA windbreaker he stepped on stage and immediately owned it and grabbed the audience’s attention.
He grabbed this space geek’s attention at, “Hello Jenn,” when he shook my hand after being introduced as a NASA fan earlier in the morning in his dressing room. I shared how I was at his #NASATweetup, twice (first launch attempt was scrubbed), and he waved to our group from the Astro Van. Of course, I understood if he didn’t remember, he was commanding the final launch of space shuttle Endeavour that day and had other things on his mind.
In fact, strapped in the space shuttle and preparing for launch, he told the audience he had the thought of, “This is a stupid thing to do. This is real dangerous.” He described a space shuttle liftoff as feeling like being in a runaway train going 1,000 mph and accelerating.
First and foremost he had his wife Gabrielle Giffords on his mind and described May 16, 2011, as a high point in his career and a low point in life. This was his fourth and final space shuttle mission yet Gabby was still recovering and needed an additional surgery while Kelly was away.
During his hour-long lecture, Kelly shared how he watched his mom’s determination to become one of New Jersey’s first female police officers. She struggled at first with the physical requirements but she practiced and persisted and when it came time for testing, she was quicker than some of the men.
Kelly saw how hard his mom worked and in high school decided if he worked hard he could achieve his dream of being the first person to walk on Mars. That didn’t happen but he did make it into space four times and joked, “Just think, when I told the aliens I’ve been to Earth five times they were impressed.”
He admitted he wasn’t a good pilot and struggled during flight training in Pensacola but he remembered the determination of his mother saying, “I’m an example of overcoming lack of aptitude with practice, persistence and drive to never give up.”
Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords
It sounds as though it was love at first sight when Kelly met Giffords during a 2003 trade mission to China. Because of her diverse background, experiences and interests, he described her as many women in one. When the couple married in 2007 Kelly said he thought he had the risky job.
There was no countdown clock on Jan. 8, 2011, when Kelly received the call Gabby had been shot in the head. Life significantly changed for both of them and he correlated what he had learned from NASA and how he applied it as a primary caregiver.
He assured the crowd Gabby is recovering and she’s always encouraging him with the words, “Fight. Fight. Fight.” Kelly shared her ritual when new visitors come to their home. “She’ll go over to the freezer pull out the blue Tupperware, open it up and show you her head.”
What she’s showing is a skull fragment removed during surgery.
“He may have put a bullet in her head, but not a dent in her spirit or desire to make the world a better place,” Kelly said of Giffords’ recovery and read a note she sent along for the audience.
“Be positive, be courageous and be your best.”
Continue reading Q&A with Astronaut Mark Kelly in Sarasota.
Image Credit with Mark Kelly: Robert Pope Photography