American hero Captain Mark Kelly delivered a moving keynote address at the AFT 2018 Spring Summit at California’s Ojai Valley Inn about his courage and endurance as a NASA space shuttle pilot and commander and observations as spouse to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s inspiring recovery from an assassination attempt.
Kelly captivated attendees with lessons learned such as in his initiation as a Navy pilot, “I very quickly found out that I am not Maverick (from the film ‘Top Gun’).” However, he added, “how good you are at the beginning of anything is not necessarily a good indication of how good you can become.”
An experienced naval aviator who flew combat missions during the Gulf War, Kelly joined NASA as a Space Shuttle pilot in 1996 and flew his first mission in 2001 as pilot of Space Shuttle Endeavour. He piloted Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006; and commanded Discovery in 2008 and Endeavour in 2011, the final mission for the astronaut and the shuttle.
Kelly described the dangers of spaceflight such as the experience at launch sitting on what he described as a bomb on a hill, and landing what he called “By far the best spaceship we've ever built but also the worst airplane I've ever flown in my life.”
He spoke in detail of overcoming personal tragedy.
“When my wife, Gabby, headed for Congress for the first time in 2007 I thought I had the risky job.” After flying almost 40 air missions and the first of his two stints commanding a space shuttle, it was his wife, Giffords, who almost lost her life serving her country on January 8, 2011. Kelly explained how on the day of her injury there was no countdown clock like he had for combat and space missions where he could anticipate and prepare for the type of decisions he needed to make. “In January of 2011, there was no clock, just the ringing on my cell phone.”
Kelly described Giffords’ slow road back; tough recovery from a brain injury, struggle with language, and coping with limitations. He also learned patience in himself. “I realized this is not going to be a week or a month or a year. It was slow and difficult. I was starting to get worried. Do I have enough patience to do this for the rest of my life? I am not a very patient person. I fly a rocket ship.”
Of his wife’s resilience, Kelly said, “Now people can fight to survive and fight to come back and you know, not even take themselves seriously.”
Kelly also related some lessons to take forth in business such as dealing with crisis (‘’In the financial industry, you know, there are certainly all kinds of stuff that is often outside your control”); the importance of interaction (“Timely and accurate communication is so important in everything we all do”); and dealing with yes people (“I am perfectly capable of agreeing with myself”). He required his crew to question his decisions on a regular basis.
The astronaut also spoke of the thrill of being in space: “We're in orbit around this incredible planet and it's such an amazing thing to see this big round blue ball just floating there in the blackness of space. All seven and a half billion of us literally live on an island in our solar system.”