Commander Mark Kelly knows first hand the meaning of the word courage. As a Naval pilot, he has flown thirty-nine dangerous missions to drop bombs in Iraq during the Gulf War. As a NASA astronaut, he has logged over 50 days in space, 15 million miles, orbiting earth over 600 times. But he will freely admit he didn’t know the true definition of the word until his wife, United States Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, was the target of an attempted assassination on January 8, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona while meeting with her constituents.
Her battle to recovery, which she is still actively engaged in, required numerous complicated surgeries, as she was shot in the head, as well as six days a week of grueling therapy, physical, speech and occupational. She gets to rest on Sunday, when it is limited to an hour. Six people, including a nine- year old girl, were killed in the attack and, as Commander Kelly was rushing by plane with his family to be by her side, he heard the television report that she too had died.
That crushing news was, thankfully, erroneous but she had suffered a traumatic brain injury and has had to learn to walk, speak, eat, read and write again. The couple has written a memoir, with Jeffrey Zaslow, entitled “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope” and Mark Kelly spoke Friday night, May 4, 2012 as the Mary and Louis Fusco Distinguished Lecturer at Lyman Hall on the campus of Southern Connecticut State University. As the fourteenth in the series, he joins the ranks of Colin Powell, Walter Cronkite, Tim Russert and Michael J. Fox, among others.
Now retired from the Navy and from NASA,, after piloting the final mission of space shuttle Endeavor in May of 2011 with his wife watching at the Kennedy Space Center, he is concentrating on helping her recover. Doing public motivational speaking at schools, universities and in the community, he now has the flexibility to be there to take Gabby to her doctor’s appointments. He is also a safety consultant for a company SpaceX, a commercial crew program to launch cargo to the space station and, eventually, to find customers for space travel. Kelly would encourage people to support the space program, through calls and letters to their Congressional representatives and would one day like to see the United States explore Mars. According to Kelly, “you have the power in a single voice to be heard.”
His message at SCSU, woven into his story of Gabby, is one of “hope, resilience and management.,” He urged the students to “set goals and focus,” admitting he and his twin brother Scott, also an astronaut, were underachievers in high school. Calling “every experience an opportunity to learn,” he encouraged teamwork to find solutions, but cautioned “none of us is as dumb as all of us.” Independent thinking and questioning should be a major part of decision making.
Stating that “it is critical to have a good team that works well together,” he emphasized “paying attention to the details” and “thinking ahead.” Relating his words to his space shuttle missions, he confessed they were “risky business, putting 4 and ½ million pounds, mostly fuel, strapped to a rocket, with a million and ½ pounds of thrust, reaching a speed of 17,000 miles an hour in 8 minutes, 25 times the speed of sound.”
Kelly called orbiting the earth, a “big blue marble in the blackness of space,” an exciting experience. His space travel, his war missions as well as the shooting have taught him that “things can change in an instant.” He maintains a deep faith in God, this country, his family and his friends. He relayed a message from Gabby: “Be passionate. Be courageous. Be strong. God bless America.”
Partnering the evening was the Brain Injury Alliance of CT (BIAC), offering support, resources, assistance and programs since 1981 for families of brain injury survivors for prevention and recovery. Located at 200 Day Hill Road, Suite 250, Windsor, CT 06095, they can be reached at 800-278-8242, 860-219-0291 or online at www.biact.org.
Mary Papazian, Ph. D., the president of SCSU, summed it up best: “Shoot for the stars. That’s how you reach the moon.”