Reaching For The Stars

Author Mark Kelly Inspires BG Audience With Tales From Life as a Pilot, Astronaut and Tragedy Survivor

By Shay Carroll

As part of events commemorating its 50th anniversary celebration, University Libraries hosted astronaut and author Mark Kelly to headline the Ordinary People, Extraordinary Stories lecture series this fall.

The former Navy officer and NASA astronaut shared his experiences through witty and moving tales to a crowd of several hundred enthusiastic listeners.

Kelly has been to space a total of four times, the first two aboard the STS-108 Endeavour and STS-121 Discovery.

“For my first two flights, I was the pilot,” Kelly said. “For the STS-124 Discovery mission, I was the commander. Being the commander is different, as you’re responsible for the entire mission, for the safety of all of your crew members.”

Kelly inspired the audience with many harrowing and hilarious anecdotes about his life’s trials and tribulations, including his rocky start to becoming a pilot. He described his poor performance on his first attempt to land on an aircraft carrier and how he nearly crashed his plane, prompting the flight evaluator to ask him afterward: “Are you sure this is the right career for you?”

Kelly didn’t give up, though, and redoubled his efforts.BEEG6371

“How good you are at the beginning of something isn’t an indicator of how well you’ll do later,” Kelly said.

One of the first points Kelly expanded upon was that there was never an excuse for not communicating with teammates, describing one event in particular where he didn’t properly communicate with a pilot he was working with during a combat mission over Iraq, which very nearly resulted in getting both him and his partner killed.

“I tell my teams that they are required to question my decisions – especially if they believe it will affect the mission and crew’s safety,” Kelly said. “A group is just as capable of making dumb decisions as one individual, and group think can be dangerous when people are hesitant to contradict anyone else.”

Kelly also spoke candidly about wife Gabrielle Giffords, a former U.S. congresswoman who shot outside a Tuscon supermarket in 2011 while meeting with constituents. While she survived being shot in the head, Giffords now has aphasia – a language disorder resulting from brain injury that leaves its victims with the loss of ability to comprehend or express speech properly.

Kelly and Giffords wrote about the tragedy in their 2011 book, “Gabby: A Story of Courage.”

“It was a learning experience for both of us in terms of patience, and in terms of decision making,” Kelly said of his wife’s shooting and subsequent recovery.

In another moving story, Kelly explained how after Giffords was shot, the doctors needed to perform surgery and repair parts of her skull, and decided to change the way they did the procedure the day before it was scheduled to happen, which led to Kelly questioning how group decisions are made and what the best course of action would be – something he has carried into his career and how he makes safety decisions for his own crew.

Kelly’s last words of advice were from his wife.

“She spent most of the morning trying to articulate just what she wanted to say to all of you,” Kelly said, addressing the crowd. “Right before I left, this is what she finally decided on:  ‘Be bold, be courageous, and be your best.’ And I think that’s all we can really hope to be in life.”