Mark Kellys Been To Space. Can He Make it to Capitol Hill?

 wired.com  10/26/2020 11:00:00   Daniel Oberhaus

Call him the cosmic candidate. At 56 years old, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly has logged nearly two months in space as the pilot or commander of four space shuttle missions. After retiring from the astronaut corps in 2011, Kelly helped make history as the control subject in an unprecedented study on the way space affects the human body, in which his twin brother Scott spent a record-breaking 340 consecutive days in orbit. And now, the astronaut and Navy veteran is making waves after emerging as the frontrunner in a high-stakes race for one of Arizonas seats in the US Senate.

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The Arizona race is a special election to fill the vacancy left by John McCain, who died of brain cancer in 2018. McCains seat was filled by gubernatorial appointment until this November, when Arizonans will decide who will finish the final two years of his term. Kelly, a Democrat, announced his candidacy in early 2019, and sought to position himself as the independent voice of reason. Im running for the United States Senate because Washington is broken, Kelly wrote on his website. Partisanship keeps politicians from finding solutions, and all of the money in our political system keeps politicians from being accountable to the people theyre supposed to represent.

(His campaign did not respond to WIREDs requests for comment.)

If Kelly wins, he would be among a small constellation of astronauts-turned-politicians, a coterie that includes two Apollo crew members and one space shuttle commander. On the trail, Kelly has played up his astronaut cred and scientific sensibilities. His campaign sells t-shirts that read Science + Data + Facts, bumper stickers featuring a space shuttle, and star-studded campaign buttons. Its not hard to see why. Astronauts have been regarded as national heroes even before Buzz and Neil set foot on the moon. Theyre the types of people kids want to be when they grow up. Theyre daring adventurers who are willing to stare death in the face to push the boundaries of human knowledge and promote peace among nations. In short, astronauts are the exact opposite of whatever comes to mind when most people think of a politician.

I think that most people are looking for independent representatives, says Shaughnessy Naughton, the president and founder of 314 Action, a nonprofit organization that supports scientists running for office in the US and whose Action Fund has contributed to Kellys campaign. They want honesty, they want transparency, and they want leaders that will base their conclusions on facts and evidence, and weve certainly seen that from Mark Kelly.

In the early days of NASAs human space program, some astronauts saw themselves as literally and figuratively above the trifling concerns of terrestrial politics. The sentiment was succinctly captured by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell after his journey to the lunar surface. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty, Mitchell said in an interview with People magazine after he returned. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, Look at that, you son of a bitch.

But others realized that their space age sheen could also launch them into some of the most powerful positions in government. Just two years after he became the first American to orbit Earth as part of NASAs Mercury program, John Glenn ran for the US Senate. By the time that he made his flight in Mercury, he was a household name, and he played that for all it was worth, says Roger Launius, the former chief historian at NASA.

Despite his historic achievement, Glenns initial foray into politics was harshly criticized from both sides of the aisle. The high office of the US Senator from the State of Ohio should not be made a heros pawn, no matter the breadth of our gratitude, said Representative Charles Vanik in a 1964 article in the St. Petersburg Times. This grave responsibility, so vital to the state and to the nation, should not be vested to the unprepared. The same article also mentioned uneasy speculation among other members of Congress that Glenn might kick off a trend of senators from space.

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