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Former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly hopes to bring some science to the Senate

Former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly hopes to bring some science to the Senate


‘Science and data is at the root of most of the issues that we have to deal with’

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In February, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly announced his decision to run for the US Senate in Arizona — a move that he had been thinking about for the last couple of months. As the husband of former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), Kelly is no stranger to politics. If elected, he will join a very small group of astronauts who have transitioned from an orbital office to one on Capitol Hill.

The Verge spoke to Kelly about his path from astronaut to Senate candidate and how he plans to incorporate his scientific experience into politics.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

My experience with astronauts at NASA is that you remain very apolitical while you’re at the agency. What has the transition been like going from a NASA employee where you don’t really enter the political fray to becoming a more political figure and then ultimately running for office?

As a federal government employee, you’re restricted in political activities because of the Hatch Act. And for people in the military — which is, by the way, about half the astronaut office — there are added restrictions.

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Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords.
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I was in a little bit of a different situation being married to a member of Congress. So I was involved in political stuff, but I certainly always followed all of those restrictions as somebody who is an astronaut at NASA and on active duty of the US military. But I always cared about what was going on in the world, domestic policy, national security issues, and what our government is doing with regards to space and science and engineering.

“I always cared about what was going on in the world.”

After Gabby was injured [Note: Giffords was shot at a campaign event in 2011] and she left government, I left our space program, and I left the military. Then we had to start figuring out what we were going to do next and what our lives would look like. Some unfortunate events after I left NASA, including the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, shaped what the next several years looked like for us. I learned from that experience — and also being married to Gabby — the value of smart public policy that’s really rooted in real science data and engineering facts.

And I think I have something to offer. There are not a lot of engineers in the United States Senate.

There are not a lot of astronauts who have run for office, either. The most notable candidate was John Glenn, who served as a senator for 25 years. How do you think your experience, either flying the Space Shuttle or working as an engineer at NASA, will be helpful if you are elected?

A space mission is a really hard thing to accomplish. It takes a big team of people — thousands of people working together, trying to accomplish something very technically and operationally difficult. It requires a tremendous amount of collaboration, and it requires having a strong grasp of data and facts.

Mark Kelly in the pilot’s station of Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006.
Mark Kelly in the pilot’s station of Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006.
Photo by Mark Kelly

I think that’s probably a unique perspective for somebody who is serving in the United States Congress, especially in the Senate. So I think — and I hope — that my experience is a benefit to my future colleagues if I’m elected.

Everyone talks about that overview effect that astronauts experience, a shift in perspective that some people have when they see the curvature of Earth from space. Did that change your perspective on life and shape how you feel about certain policies?

Well, it certainly changes your perspective of our situation here in the Universe — that we all pretty much live on an island in our Solar System. This is our planet. We have no place else to go. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking that someday we’re all moving Mars. That is not happening, at least not in any time frame that matters.

“Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking that someday we’re all moving Mars.”

I don’t want to speak for all astronauts, but I think a common theme among people who have seen our planet from space is a couple of things: we’re all in this together, and we have a very fragile planet that we live on. People often look up, and you think you have this big, giant atmosphere that protects us from the radiation and from the vacuum of space. And it’s really not as big as people think. When you’re in orbit looking at the planet, our atmosphere looks like a contact lens on an eyeball. It is very thin, and half the atmosphere is at 10,000 feet and below. So you get a sense that we not only have to protect the planet and life on the planet, but we have to protect our atmosphere because it’s protecting us.

Of course, you’ve been very closely tied to the political arena because of Gabby. What has she taught you about what you might expect if you were to be elected?  

We were married for her entire service in Congress, and she taught me how hard you have to work to be successful at that job, and I’m ready to do that. She taught me how you have to bring people together and how you have to work across the aisle. It’s not true for everybody, but a lot of folks that are currently in office, they tend to get into their corner — whether it’s all the way on the right or all the way on the left. That makes it very difficult for the folks we elect to accomplish things. So working across the aisle, and having some sense of independence from a political party is a very important aspect of serving at that level.

You’re making science a very central theme of your campaign. What are some policies you’ll be focusing on if you are elected?

Science affects everything. It’s health care. The increases in costs we’ve seen over the decades in health care is somewhat rooted in science. Science and data is at the root of most of the issues that we have to deal with, whether it’s border security, health care, climate, gun violence. I mean, you could continue to go down a list.

You’re being endorsed by 314 Action. I would love some specifics on some of the ways that you can use science to approach decision-making.

I think it starts with finding people who are going to serve, and that’s what 314 Action does. They want to support candidates that, first, fundamentally believe in science. We sometimes elect people who don’t, who have beliefs that are just not true and are not rooted in reality and facts. Sometimes these people even serve on the science committee, which I find a bit puzzling.

Mark Kelly training at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab.
Mark Kelly training at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab.
Photo: NASA

When you are trying to make these hard decisions, it’s important to look at the data. I used to be a test pilot. We would make decisions based on the data the airplane systems are telling us.

Our government is doing a really good job of screwing some things up. And I think often what we find is that the people we elect are making decisions based on politics and partisanship, and not really looking at the underlying reasons. How did we come to these conclusions and these options?

Definitely, data is very important to have to back up what decisions you’re making, but what about making sure that you have the right data and parsing when something may not be a good conclusion? What do you think are good ways to make sure that you have the right facts and the right data to back up your claim?

Make sure the person who has done the research is from a reputable organization. This study that I’m looking at, is it from an accredited research university? Is this from the CDC? Is this from the NIH? Are these numbers and this analysis from the CBO or the Pentagon? Or are they from some organization you never heard of that has a partisan agenda? I think that’s kind of the first step in trying to make a decision: are you getting unbiased information? I think it helps to have a little background in science and engineering to be able to do that — and then also to evaluate options.

What about matters that people might not necessarily consider very “scientific”? Are there ways that science could benefit policies that might be considered more political in nature than scientific in nature? 

I don’t know, everything seems political in nature, right? There always seems to be somebody lined up on one side of an issue or the other based solely on profit. Corporations are certainly involved in a lot of the decision-making that we see at the highest level. That’s one of the reasons why, by the way, I’m not going to take any corporate PAC money in this election or any others, for that matter. To try to get elected, I’m going to focus on people because then that’s going to help me. I’m going to vote in a way that’s in the best interests of the people of Arizona and this country, and not what’s in the best interest of some corporation.

What are some of the issues that you’ve found are at the top of people’s minds in Arizona?

Health care, wage growth, the environment, border security. I would say those are things that are at the top of the list.

Mark Kelly (L) and his twin brother Scott Kelly (R), both of whom were NASA astronauts.
Mark Kelly (L) and his twin brother Scott Kelly (R), both of whom were NASA astronauts.
Photo: NASA

And, of course, climate change, when you live in the desert. If we don’t do something on this issue, the planet’s going to be seven degrees hotter in the year 2100. That’ll be devastating for people here in Arizona.

Climate change is such a global issue. What are some of the ways that you hope to make change from the state of Arizona?

We have 350 days of sunshine a year, and if we can continue to move from fossil fuels to more renewables, it’s a benefit to our state. It means jobs and lower energy costs, hopefully. We’ve got to spend more on energy research and development to try to drive down the cost of renewable energy, solar, wind, hydroelectric. If we do that, we will allow consumers to make decisions that not only are good for the environment, but are good for them financially. What that means here in Arizona, as we can continue to drive down the cost of solar, is that it becomes a very easy decision to add solar panels to your house or even maybe get an electric car. Those things just make a lot more sense. And more people will do it. It’s going to not only benefit them but it will benefit the environment.

What has the reaction been like as you have met people and campaigned? How do people respond to having someone with a science background running for office?

I think that resonates with people. I think they look at that as a positive thing. That’s been my experience so far. Diversity is always good, right? This is what I always liked on the Space Shuttle. I always had people on the Space Shuttle from different countries. When you have diverse people or a diverse workforce, they look at problems differently and offer solutions that a homogeneous group of people might not come up with. I think that’s important in the United States Senate as well — to have somewhat of a diverse background of people. That’s typically not the case.