Capt. Mark Kelly, commander of Space Shuttle Endeavour’s final mission and space and aviation contributor for NBC News/MSNBC, will keynote this year’s Women in Leadership Awards luncheon at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts on May 11. While the No. 1 New York Times best-selling author and founder of World View Enterprises plans to share his own experiences with the audience, Kelly has another story to tell. It’s about his wife, former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot during an assassination attempt on Jan. 8, 2011, in Tucson, Arizona.
Tell me about how you became an astronaut.
I was in the Navy the whole time I was an astronaut. About half of astronauts are in the military in active duty. It’s a big common thing for a test pilot to apply to be an astronaut, you know, a space shuttle is kind of the ultimate flying machine. It’s kind of like the ultimate challenge for a test pilot. When I applied for the first time I was probably not even 30 years old yet—28, 29—didn’t get very far. But after becoming a test pilot in the Navy, I was successful at being selected to be an astronaut and then showed up at NASA in August of ’96.
Why do you think you were selected?
There are a lot of applicants. So like right now they’re picking a class of 10. They have 16,000 applicants. So, you know, they’ve got to pick somebody, right? I mean, you certainly have to be qualified, [but] there are a lot of qualified people. It helps to kind of be at the right place at the right time as far as your career progression is going. … I think I had a pretty good resume, and then you have to get lucky. You’ve spent more than 50 days in space. Could you tell me about the sensation of space travel? There are all different parts of it. There’s the launching in a rocket ship part, which is very exciting and fun and dangerous. There’s the living in space part, which is very striking and memorable. You get to view earth as a planet, which is an incredible thing to see. You get to live without gravity, also very dangerous. Coming back to the planet after being away is an exhilarating experience.
Can you tell me about what happened on Jan. 8, 2011?
It was a Saturday morning, on Jan. 8, 2011. I was home in Texas. [Gabrielle Giffords] and I had one of those commuter marriages. She was in Tucson in her district getting ready to do this thing she called “Congress on your Corner,” where she would stand in the Safeway supermarket for the whole day and take any questions from her constituents. I’d just gotten off the phone with Gabby, and I knew she was going to do this, and I’d seen her a few days before in Washington, D.C. I was sitting in the living room [when] my cell phone rang, and it’s Gabby’s chief of staff, a woman named Pia Carusone. [She] said, ‘Mark, I don’t know how to tell you this, but Gabby’s been shot.’ She didn’t have a lot of other information. We got off the call, then a little while later I thought, ‘Did I really get that phone call? Did that really happen?’ I called Pia back. And that’s when she gave me the really bad news that Gabby had been shot in the head. At that point I knew it was certainly going to be the biggest challenge of my life.
You are the first male keynote speaker the Executive Women of the Palm Beaches has hosted in 33 years. Why do you think you were selected?
I imagine people are maybe really fond of my wife, Gabby. I think they want to hear a story of a strong woman—you know, because of Gabby’s injury, it’s hard for her to tell that story. Her brain injury, she has this thing called aphasia, which is difficulty with language, and so I think they want to hear the compelling story about Gabby.
What do you hope this year’s attendees will gain from your presentation?
I hope to inspire people. I talk about some of the lessons I learned from my career in the Navy and at NASA, and I talk a lot about what happened to Gabby. I hope they can take some of this stuff back into their own lives—a little lesson about the power of the human spirit, [and] how to overcome adversity. You know, people have adversity in their own lives. I like to think this kind of helps folks with their own challenges.