“Be Bold, Be Courageous, Be Your Best!”
By Anne Mari DeCoster
AZSA Executive Director
Mark Kelly is the son of a New Jersey detective who jokes that he has one up on the aliens: he visited earth 5 times - in conjunction with his 4 visits to the International Space Station. Another interesting fact: he's a twin, who is also an astronaut, and their DNA was identical before their missions in space. Afterward: their DNA was a 17% different. That gives the scientists something to ponder!
Astronaut, fighter pilot with 30 combat missions, and wife of beloved Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Gifford, Mark Kelly was the Keynote Speaker of the Self Storage Association’s Spring Conference in Orlando, FL, in March 2018, where he shared life lessons from his fascinating experiences with 1500 self-storage professionals - even finding a way to relate space exploration to our “space”: “The International Space Station could use some help from you: It needs a storage unit! The place if full of junk!”
This American hero described life as a set of challenges, personal or professional. Perseverance, attention to detail, and open communication keep the ship afloat, whether you’re in space or business. To demonstrate the power of having a goal and a plan, he told a story about his Mother, a secretary and waitress who decided “mid-career” to join her husband as a New Jersey cop. One of her first obstacles was climbing a 7’ 2” wall. She is only 5’ 1” tall. Her husband “duplicated” the wall in their backyard, but added an inch without telling her. Every night after dinner, Mark and his twin brother watched their mom try to climb that wall. It took a long time, but she finally mastered it. When she took her physical to become a cop, she climbed the wall in half the time it took her fellow recruits.
Early in his career, Commander Kelly learned that “how good you are at something the first time you try is not an indicator of how good you’ll become. Don’t give up,” he said, as he shared his dismal performance the first time he landed and took off from an aircraft carrier. “From the cockpit, it looked like a postage stamp floating in the ocean.” [Funny, that’s exactly how my Dad described it.]
Chuckling about how badly he did, Astronaut Kelly said he was not the Top Gun in his cohort of Navy pilots. “The Top Guns didn’t become astronauts,” he said, “I know that because now I see them in the front of the plane as I travel.” They became commercial pilots, but through persistence and tenacity, Mark Kelly achieved his dream of becoming an astronaut, even if science and technology didn’t advance quickly enough for him to go to Mars.
Commander Kelly quoted Winston Churchill in describing his first combat mission: “There’s nothing more exciting than being shot at and missed!” He described flying through anti-aircraft artillery and missiles in Iraqi airspace as the first Gulf War began. “You know what’s worse than seeing the 1st missile coming at you? Seeing the 2nd!” He said clarity of focus was crucial for him and his co-pilot to dodge the threats, acquire the target, and return home in one piece, emphasizing the importance of having a team dedicated to the mission, each one concentrating on what is in his or her control, so that together they can get the job done.
He also used this first combat mission to demonstrate the importance of communication. To return to base safely, he flew into Iranian airspace and found himself targeted by US fighter jets, because he failed to report to headquarters that he deviated from the flight plan. He never made that mistake again!
The astronaut described what NASA learned about communication and decision making after two space tragedies, the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 1993. After losing these ships and their crews, the conference room at Mission Control was reconfigured. All the chairs were placed on the same level, so no one was above anyone else, and every spot was fitted with a microphone, so everyone could be heard. Sayings were written on the walls, including Mark Kelly’s favorite: “None of us is as dumb as all of us.” His meaning: sometimes very smart people march off in direction no one individual would ever go alone. It's a herd mentality, peer pressure at its worst, and NASA realized that contributed to the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
He used this lesson to get the best medical care for his wife too. Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Gifford's was shot in the head in Tucson, while she was holding what she called “Congress on Your Corner,” talking to constituents in a grocery store parking lot in January 2011. Mark recalls thinking, “I was supposed to be the one with the dangerous job.” Upon receiving the phone call, he flew from Houston to Tucson, listening to the news as they pronounced his wife dead. With sober emphasis, he said, “Fake news is not a new thing.” Thankfully, the news got that report wrong, and his wife survived the gunshot to the head from 3’ away.
When the plan changed for how doctors would perform her second surgery, Mark Kelly called the whole team together in the “crying room with the dirty microwave.” He explained quote on the NASA conference room walls. Then he asked every member of the team what they thought should be done, starting with the youngest, most junior person in the room, adding, “she looked all of 17 years old.” They all spoke, agreeing and disagreeing, and determined the best approach. The surgery was successful, though it could not restore Gabby Giffords to her previous condition, due to the traumatic brain injury from the gunshot wound.
Commander Kelly spoke at the SSA Spring Conference just two days after Steven Hawking, using the occasion to share a lesson he learned from his wife about patience, emphasizing how important it became in their life together after the shooting. He admired greatly Dr. Hawking and was able to meet him to present a medal he had flown into space. The heroic astronaut was looking for a reaction from the genius physicist, but he got no response.
His wife, “recognizing that I was crashing and burning in front of my hero, came to my rescue. She got down on her knees so she could look at Dr. Hawking eye to eye as he sat in his wheelchair, and she said, ‘Hello Dr. Hawkings, I’m Gabby Gifford's. How are you?’ Then she waited.”
The astronaut said it seemed like forever. He’s not long on patience (“After all, I fly rocket ships for a living!“) It was actually 5 minutes, during which his wife just smiled and looked at Dr. Hawking in the eyes. Eventually, through the equipment on his wheelchair that could read movement of one muscle on his face, Dr. Hawking replied, “Thank you very much. I’m fine, thank you.” Mark Kelly thinks about that as he waits, patiently, for his wife to form sentences now, made very difficult by the brain injury.
Mark Kelly talked about the importance of attention to detail. “It's dangerous to go into space,” he said, “almost as dangerous as storming the beach on D-Day.” He compared the odds that you’ll die to picking a card from a deck. If everyone in his audience that day picked a card from a deck, 1 in 52 would pick the ace of spades. Several people would pick it & die. “But at NASA we understand those odds,” he said, “and we manage the risk, pay attention to detail, and drive the risk down. Small details, that’s where the catastrophic chain of events starts.” [Or as my mother said, “The devil’s in the details.”]
Mark Kelly’s biggest pet peeve: yes people. “I don’t want that! I am perfectly capable of agreeing with myself. I tell my team they are required to question my decisions. But not out loud,” he jokes, “Just tell me if it’s important!”
Describing the view from space, when you’re finally in orbit after a grueling series of explosions to blast free from earth’s gravity, “You see the round earth floating in the black of space, and realize that 7.5 billion people live on an island in our solar system.”
About the ship he was flying, the Endeavor, Mark Kelly says, “It’s the best spaceship ever built. It’s a decent rocket ship, nut it's fragile, like a butterfly bolted to a bullet. And it is also the worst airplane I’ve ever flown in my life!” When you re-enter earth’s orbit, “It's a fireball as big as this resort, and right outside, it’s 5000 degrees. And I’m supposed to land this spaceship on runway with water on either side. And guess what that water’s full of? Alligators! I think NASA put it there as added incentive to land this $2 billion ship successfully.”
As he concluded his remarks, he shared that his wife’s spirit is thriving, even if she can’t serve in Congress any longer. “The shooter dented her head, but not her spirit,” he said. In her third surgery, they replaced part of her skull with a titanium plate. Now, she keeps her “real skull in the freezer at home” to show unsuspecting guests. “That’s the power of the human spirit!”
The Congresswoman and the astronaut attended the sentencing hearing of the man who shot her. When the time came, he and his wife turned to face the shooter, and Mark Kelly read his wife’s 20 minute statement. “I’d trade my life for any one of those who died that day, especially the 9 year old who was born on 9/11.” She was a very civic minded girl, who wanted to ask about the oil spill in Houston. She was never able to ask her question, and the Congresswoman was never able to meet her.
Commander Mark Kelly concluded his remarks to our audience with his wife’s message to everyone: “Be bold, be courageous, be your best!”