On Monday, we wrote about Gabrielle Giffords, the U.S. Representative who was among twenty people shot during her Congress on Your Corner event in Tuscon on Saturday. Her husband is Mark Kelly, the astronaut scheduled to command the final space shuttle mission in April, and her brother-in-law is Scott Kelly, the astronaut currently orbiting around the Earth at 17,000 miles per hour. This evening marks a memorial service in Arizona, attended by President Obama and thousands of others, to honor those slain over the weekend. Monday’s blog post and the comments that followed that post are a testament to unexpected connections among and wide-ranging interests of people all around us.
Since then, we’ve been thinking about what it means to be an astronaut. There exist numerous references to the risks astronauts take. It’s a dangerous job. Mark Kelly discussed this fact in his STS-121 preflight interview: “My family deals with those risks. The best I can do is talk to them about some of those risks. I’m not incredibly specific with them, especially with my kids. I want them not to be afraid that there’s going to be another accident. They were very close to one of the Columbia crewmembers and knew, probably, four out of the seven of them fairly well. So I want the experience of me going up into space to be a positive one for them.”
That was in 2005, when he and Gabrielle Giffords were courting. A Washington Post article quotes Representative Debbie Wasserman Shultz as saying the following about Giffords’ attitude in 2008, when her husband last launched into space: “There was definitely angst, there was obvious worry […]. There have been two shuttles that have not come back.”
But we rarely consider the reverse scenario, that something awful might happen to an astronaut’s family while he or she is unable to respond in person. Scott Kelly, Mark’s twin brother, is in the midst of a six-month stint on the International Space Station. In response to the shooting and to his sister-in-law’s condition, Scott Kelly tweeted the following from space: “I want to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers, words of condolences and encouragement for the victims and their families of this horrific event.” He’s looking down on the Earth, noticing how lovely it appears: “As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not.”
The last astronaut to experience this sort of unexpected family crisis was Dan Tani, when he was a flight engineer on the ISS in 2007. From space, he offered the following public statement after his mother was killed in a car-train collision: “I would like to thank everyone who has expressed their condolences during this time of grieving for me and my family. Living on the space station means that I experience all aspects of life—be they joyous or tragic—while circling the Earth without a convenient way to return. Of course, I was aware of this situation before my mission and I fully accept that I will proudly complete my mission on the International Space Station and join my family when I return. […] My mother was a complete joy. Those who knew her will know that words cannot describe her vitality, generosity and warmth. She was my hero. We will all miss her dearly. […] I understand the interest in our lives based upon my job. Please respect our desire for privacy during this difficult time.”
Given this possibility of being in space during a family crisis—and of the heightened public gaze this situation draws—why does a person become an astronaut? Work on the ISS requires long stretches far from home with no way to change your mind halfway through your experience.
In his preflight interview in 2008, Mark Kelly explained why he became an astronaut (also see first video below for more background): “I watched the Apollo astronauts in the late 60s, early 70s. I kind of remember Apollo 11 a little bit and then remember the last Apollo missions, remember seeing footage about what astronauts did in their careers before they were astronauts and then became interested at that point. It’s not something I planned on doing my entire life growing up, but later on in my career I had the opportunity and that’s the path I decided to go on.” The Apollo missions shaped the goals of many of today’s astronauts. It’s a cultural event that our generation remembers from our childhoods. It’s a reference we heard again and again at Kennedy Space Center, when we talked with space shuttle astronauts about why they’d followed this path.
Three years earlier, in another preflight interview, Mark Kelly gave a similar response: “I think I was very interested in the space program as a kid, watching the first Apollo missions to the moon, and it’s something I thought that would be a lot of, of fun and exciting and a very worthwhile job—something where you’re helping a lot of people and discovering new things.” In that interview, he talks of his educational background—a couple of bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering—and his experience in the Merchant Marines and in the Navy. He points to his memory of seeing footage of Alan Shepard landing on an aircraft carrier before he became an astronaut; Mark Kelly recognized that one could be a pilot in the Navy and then fly into space.
Mark Kelly’s alternate dream job was quarterback for the New England Patriots. His brother Scott had similarly unrealistic aspirations as a child (also see first video below for more background): “I was interested in being an astronaut like a lot of kids are, because it seems like an exciting job; I was also interested in playing baseball for the Mets and, race car driving, and other more realistic things, I think, as I got older. Eventually I decided I wanted to be a pilot in the Navy.” In his preflight interview this past August, Scott Kelly talks, as do many astronauts, not just about preparation, but also about timing and luck as necessary in the process.
When we think about what these astronauts are saying about influence and timing, we wonder about the future of space exploration. Last fall, Astronaut Mike Massimo participated in the screening of An Article of Hope at Chapman University. In the Q&A session that followed the film, a Chapman student full of excitement asked him how she could become an astronaut. It was something she wanted more than anything else in life, and she was almost as breathless looking at Mike Massimino via Skype as girls had been at Beatles concerts decades earlier. Astro_Mike talked about the basic educational requirement: a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (the STEM disciplines), preferably an advanced degree as well. He also encouraged the young woman to do what she loved. We were surprised that he didn’t advise the woman to learn Russian.
Scott Kelly traveled to the ISS aboard a Soyuz spacecraft launched from Kazakhstan (see second video below for more on his ISS career track and more from both brothers). Though Space X and Orbital are working to develop commercial spacecraft here in the United States, the last funded space shuttle mission is STS-134, which Mark Kelly is scheduled to command. That mission will end U.S. space exploration as we have known it in our lofty lifetimes.
Until Discovery’s foam cracks delayed STS-133 from November to February and, in turn, bumped STS-134 to April, Mark and Scott had planned to be in space together just a few weeks from now. (See third video below for the brothers’ discussion of the possibility of meeting in space.) In his preflight interview last fall, Scott Kelly pondered what that meant: Their parents “don’t like the idea of having one son off the planet at any time, so this can kind of stress them out a little bit and I’m sure it will stress them out even more.” We now see that stress must work both ways.
Scott Kelly also explained, “It’s actually the first time that two blood relatives have ever been in space together. It’s exciting. I’ve obviously known my brother a really long time, and we’re great friends and, it’s a real privilege to, to share the experience with someone you’re so close to, the experience of being an astronaut, being able to talk about things that we experience and have a common framework to discuss it.” Indeed, it must be exhilarating to be able to talk with your brother about space exploration and know that he understands. Of course, given these words—their confidence, the present tense—it must also be difficult now for Scott to not be able to put an arm around Mark and talk about what’s happened here on Earth.