Mark Kelly, Gabrielle Giffords, and Grit

NASA STS-134 Mission Poster

Last Monday, astronaut Mark Kelly rejoined the crew of STS-134 for their final training for the April launch of space shuttle Endeavour. Mark Kelly has been on leave from NASA since January 8, when his wife, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was shot at a public event in Tuscon, Arizona. The next day, Scott Simon of NPR said, “Gabby Giffords has true grit. I don’t mean the kind you see in movies, but the grit to work hard, love your family and serve your country.”

By the end of last week, Gabrielle Giffords had spoken her first words since the shooting. She asked for toast. “The progress she has made has been nothing short of a miracle,” Mark Kelly said on ABC. Spokesperson C. J. Karamargin said of Giffords’s aggressive, six-hour-per-day rehabilitation and her progress, “Don’t discount the grit and determination of this particular patient.”

Psychology professor Angela Duckworth about the role of grit in high achievement (we’ve posted her TED talk below). Duckworth, drawing from William James’s “The Energies of Men,” argues there are qualities that unlock talent, so talent in itself is not a harbinger of success. She asks, what is it that enables a person to become a world-class teacher or performer—or perhaps a representative or astronaut? And she calls the quality she studies grit, after the film True Grit, starring John Wayne (and remade last year). She notes that Francis Galton, meteorologist, inventor, and (unfortunately) eugenicist, asserted that achievement depended upon talent, passion, and hard work, to which his half-cousin Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evolution and natural selection, replied that he was interested to hear that talent might have a role.

Duckworth’s ideas aren’t entirely new. Several articles in Scientific American Mindover the last few years, including a late 2007 article by psychologist Carol S. Dweck, have discussed an array of qualities that may be at least as or more important than talent. An overview article in The Boston Globe by Jonah Lerher (reprinted in The Best American Science Writing) suggests that smart people may be less likely to work hard and therefore, in the long run, may not take advantage of the talent they have. How many people do you know who are intelligent but can’t stay on task? If you get the right answer to a problem, do you attribute it to talent or to hard work? Lerher writes, “Interestingly, it also appears that praising children for their intelligence can make them less likely to persist in the face of challenges, a crucial element of grit. […] A big part of our success, Dweck says, stems from our beliefs about what leads to success.”

Two weeks ago, no one knew whether Mark Kelly would finish his training for what may be the last space shuttle launch ever (funding is up in the air for STS-135). NASA claims that the decision remained in Mark Kelly’s hands, though they put some checks in place. Kelly returned first on a trial basis for some intensive mission simulations. He claims that he put aside his personal feelings, including wanting to be the last shuttle commander, instead considering what was right for NASA and what was right for his family. Both NASA and Kelly are confident that his years of experience as a military pilot and as an astronaut will help him compartmentalize and stay focused on the mission. As he said during a recent press conference, “I have been practicing for twenty-four years.” Several friends of Gabrielle Giffords have said, too, that it’s what she would want, because she married an astronaut and knew the risks and because her recovery is going well.

Mark Kelly Marries Gabrielle Giffords

A month ago, Representative Giffords was probably meeting with staff about the week’s schedule, including a town hall gathering outside a grocery store the next day. Today, she is likely repeating small tasks for hours on end during physical and speech therapy, while Mark Kelly is likely repeating tasks to command what is the most complex flying machine ever built. Endeavour, under Mark Kelly’s command, is scheduled to launch April 19 for a fourteen-day mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and other parts to the International Space Station. Mark Kelly hopes that Gabrielle Giffords will be present for the countdown. This couple didn’t develop grit on January 8, but that day offers a lens through which the rest of us can bear witness to persistence in the face of challenges.

For more coverage of Mark Kelly’s return to service at NASA, click on the following for Politico, Space.com, MSNBC, Huffington Post, and NASA’s official press release. Click here to follow Mark Kelly on Twitter.

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