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Former Astronaut Mark Kelly Elected to U.S. Senate

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
November 4, 2020
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by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly has won election to the U.S. Senate from the state of Arizona, joining a small group of space explorers subsequently elected to serve in Congress.

The Associated Press reports that with 83 percent of the votes in, Kelly has 1,444,645 votes (52.6 percent) while Republican Sen. Martha McSally trails with 1,300,119 votes (47.4 percent). Kelly has declared victory and McSally has conceded the race.

Kelly, a Democrat who flew aboard the space shuttle four times, and McSally competed in a special election to fill the last two years of the late Republican Sen. John McCain’s six year term.

McCain died of cancer in August 2018. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey appointed McSally to complete the term when his first choice, Jon Kyl, resigned at the end of 2018 after serving in the Senate for less than four months.

Mark Kelly

Kelly is a former U.S. naval aviator who flew 39 combat missions during the Gulf War. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School who has logged more than 5,000 hours in more than 50 different aircraft.

Selected as a space shuttle pilot in 1996, Kelly served as pilot for the STS-108 mission in 2001 and the STS-121 flight in 2006, both of which visited the International Space Station (ISS). He went on to command the STS-124 and STS-134 flights to ISS in 2008 and 2011, respectively.

Identical twins, Scott and Mark Kelly, are the subjects of NASA’s Twins Study. Scott (left) spent a year in space while Mark (right) stayed on Earth as a control subject. Researchers are looking at the effects of space travel on the human body. (Credits: NASA)

Mark Kelly served as a control subject on Earth while his identical twin brother, astronaut Scott Kelly, spent nearly a year on the space station in 2015 and 2016. It was the first study conducted of twin astronauts.

Mark Kelly retired from NASA and the U.S. Navy in October 2011. He cited the need to care for his wife, Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was recovering from a shooting earlier in the year.

Giffords, who was elected to represent Arizona’s 8th Congressional district in 2007, was shot in the head in January 2011 while meeting constituents in Casas Adobes, Ariz.

Giffords survived after being placed in a medically induced coma. She left Congress in 2012.

The assassination attempt occurred as Kelly was was preparing to fly STS-134, the next-to-last space shuttle mission. Kelly commanded the nearly 16-day flight in May 2011, his fourth and final trip to space.

Kelly and Giffords have campaigned strenuously for gun control legislation. Kelly also ran on expanding the Affordable Care Act and adding a public health care option in an effort to provide coverage for all Americans.

Kelly is the fourth NASA astronaut to be elected to Congress. Mercury astronaut John Glenn won election to the U.S. Senate in 1974 from the state of Ohio. He served until January 1999, two months after flying aboard the space shuttle Discovery on STS-95 at the age of 77.

In 1976, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt was elected to the U.S. Senate from New Mexico. The Republican served a single six-year term before he was defeated in 1982.

Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert was elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from Colorado in 1982. The Republican died of cancer before he could take office.

In addition to Glenn, two members of Congress have flown in space while in office. Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) flew as a space shuttle payload specialist aboard the STS-51-D mission in 1985. Rep. Bill Nelson (R-Fla.) flew as a payload specialist during the STS-61-C mission the following year.