From Mariner to Astronaut - An Interview with Captain Mark Kelly, USN (Ret.)
(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2016 edition.)
Mark Kelly was born and raised in Orange, New Jersey, the son of two police officers, Richard and Patricia Kelly. After high school he attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Engineering & Nautical Science, graduating with highest honors in 1986.
After graduation Kelly joined the U.S. Navy and in 1987 became a naval aviator. He received his initial training on the A-6E Intruder attack aircraft. He was subsequently assigned to Attack Squadron 115 in Atsugi, Japan and made two deployments to the Persian Gulf on the aircraft carrier USS Midway during the First Gulf War, flying 39 combat missions as part of Operation Desert Storm.
Returning to the States, in 1994 he received a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Two years later Kelly and his twin brother Scott were both selected to be space shuttle pilots by NASA and joined the NASA Astronaut Corps. Kelly’s first trip into space was as pilot of Space Shuttle Endeavour on December 5, 2001, which delivered three tons of equipment, supplies and a fresh crew to the International Space Station.
In 2006 he piloted Space Shuttle Discovery in the second mission after the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia. Kelly piloted the last mission of Space Shuttle Endeavour on May 16, 2011. During that mission he traveled 5.28 million miles and orbited the Earth 2,020 times over 12 days and 18 hours.
He officially retired from the NASA Astronaut Corps and the U.S. Navy on October 1, 2011, nine months after his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was the target of an assassination attempt in Tucson, Arizona on January 8, 2011. During that assault six people were killed, and Kelly and Giffords were both thrust into the national debate over gun control. Together, they founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, which encourages elected officials to enact measures to prevent gun violence and protect responsible gun ownership.
Kelly is the recipient of numerous awards and honors and the author of several books, among them the New York Times best-selling memoir, Gabby: A Story of Courage, Love and Resilience.
Tell us about your decision to join the Navy rather than the U.S. merchant marine.
Committing to the Naval Air Forces was the right thing for me to do. I repaid my educational debt by serving in the military and flying combat missions during Operation Desert Storm, and I had a great career as well.
Having been both an astronaut and a mariner, what is the connection between the oceans and space?
Space shuttles are nothing more than ships that transport cargoes. They are the merchant ships of space, and that fits right into the education I had at Kings Point, which was to be the captain of a ship. It just so happened that my command took place above the planet. And don’t forget that the space program is a critical component of national security. NASA is the high ground for scientific research, and that influences strategies for the military. Surveillance of ocean trade lanes from space provides a distinct advantage and allows for the safe passage of maritime assets.
You recently visited your alma mater at Kings Point. What were your observations?
Yes, we were in the neighborhood and had to swing by. It’s pretty clear that the government needs to provide more funding for the merchant marine. The cadets are faced with diminishing opportunities, and if the fleet continues to shrink there will be no need for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and that would be a complete failure by the federal government.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of political will in Washington to support deepwater U.S. flag operations. And some even want to abolish the Jones Act, which protects coastwise shipping for U.S.-built and flagged ships. How do you feel about that?
It would be very sad for the U.S. if that were to happen. Congress needs to do much more to protect U.S.jobs, and maintaining a strong merchant marine is critically important to national security as well. A strong merchant marine mirrors a strong economy and a strong country. – MarEx
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.