Tomorrow, at their annual National Tribute Dinner, the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance will present a Medal of Valor to former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly. The ceremony will take place May 23 at the Beverly Hilton and will also honor producer Jerry Bruckheimer with a Humanitarian Award.
I caught up with Kelly during a 20-minute phone interview from his home in Arizona, during which he talked about the magic of outer space, how Giffords’ recovery has changed their marriage and why any journalist who interviews him should routinely watch Diane Sawyer.
One year ago next month you announced your retirement at the age of 47. How do you plan to spend your time over the next few decades?
You know, I retired from Nasa and the Navy, I didn’t really retire from working. In the military people kinda retire at a really young age. Right now I’m trying to figure out what I’m gonna do next, but in the meantime I’m doing a little public speaking, a little consulting and I’m gonna try to start a charity. So we’ve got a little bit of stuff going on.
Any passions you’ve always had that maybe you’ll get to explore?
Gabby and I have always been public servants, so I think public service is certainly in both of our futures. Right now what I need is flexibility and I don’t need to be heading into work everyday. I need to have a lot of free time so I can make sure Gabby has everything she needs so she can get better.
I read somewhere that on your very first flight into space, you traveled more than 4.8 million miles and orbited the earth 186 times in eleven days and 19 hours. That sounds almost impossible to us gravity-bound earthlings. What’s it like in space?
A magical place; to be in zero-gravity with no up-or-down for such a long period of time, and then to be able to see our planet floating out there in the blackness of space—really incredible.
With all the turmoil in the earthly world—war, poverty, starvation, lack of water—what’s your best argument for why we should spend the nation’s limited resources on searching outer space
Nasa’s budget is less than 1% of the federal budget, so its a small slice of the pie that offers a great return. The industries that have been spurred from the space program has added hundreds, probably trillions, of dollars into our economy in the last 50 years. The fact that computers are small and don’t take up an entire room? [That] has nothing to do with Silicon Valley and everything to do with the fact that we needed to get computers onto the surface of moon, and more importantly, back off of it. It’s a smart investment in our future.
At your 2007 wedding to Gabby Giffords, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich toasted: “To a bride who moves at a velocity that exceeds that of anyone else in Washington, and a groom who moves at a velocity that exceeds 17,000 miles per hour.” How does that sound to you now in light of life’s unexpected turns since?
Well, you know, Gabby is moving a little slower today than she used to. But she’s getting better and I am very confident that one day she’ll be moving at high speed, both literally and figuratively. Things can change for any of us in an instant. Over the last 16, 17 months since she was injured, I’ve met a lot of people and heard a lot of stories; and it’s not an uncommon thing for some event to happen to a person or a family and things then become drastically different.
Before you were married, you told The New York Times vows section that the “longest amount of time we’ve spent together is probably a couple of weeks at a stretch.” With your wife’s traumatic brain injury and recovery, and your retirement, I imagine that’s changed. How has spending more time time together changed your relationship?
Certainly one of the upsides of all this, if there can be any at all, is that we do have a little bit less of a crazy life. We used to have the typical commuter marriage, where we would basically visit each other either in Tucson or occasionally she’d come to Houston or I’d see her in Washington or somewhere else, and now we’re in the same place most of the time.
What have you learned about marriage in the increased amount of time you’ve spent together?
Well I’m in a unique, different kind of situation. Gabby is focused on her rehab. You’re also asking me a question that’s for a touchy-feely kinda guy and that’s not me. What have I learned about marriage? I don’t think that our relationship is any different than it was before except we have the luxury of spending a lot more time together.
In several interviews, you stated that during the most frightening moments of your wife’s ordeal, your faith had deepened. What is it about adversity that helps people connect to God?
I think it’s important to have faith. Sometimes, when things look the darkest you gotta try to reach somewhere for some light and some help. At one point in this whole ordeal we found out that Gabby had died—both CNN and Fox News reported she had died—so for thirty minutes [on an airplane] me and the kids and my mother, we thought she had passed away.
What was it like to go from a moment where all was lost to entertaining the possibility for recovery?
In hindsight, it was the low point. It’s all been pretty positive since then.
Has venturing into the vast beyond had any impact on your spirituality?
No. I’ve heard that from other astronauts but I tend to be so focused on what we’re doing, how risky it is, making sure we get everything done, I try not to get distracted by anything else.
Will you miss going into space?
Absolutely, I miss it already. Yeah. But you never know—I could go back. We have this whole burgeoning commercial space industry out there.
Both you and your wife serve the country and have often alluded to your respect for American values. But things have radically changed since this country’s founding in the 18th century. What values define America today and continue to resonate with you?
You ask very hard questions. You should have emailed them to me ahead of time. American values? Freedom. A core principle of the United States of America is that people have freedom to do what they want with their lives, to make choices that benefit them and their families. As a country, we’re a very charitable country; people give not only financially but of their time, and not only as individuals but as a nation. We continue to look out for the oppressed, not only within our own borders but throughout the world. And certainly the fact that we continue to try to promote democracy throughout the world and feel that every individual has a right to have their voice heard.
Many in this country are obviously aware that your wife suffered a serious injury and that there is a substantial recovery process involved in her healing. But there’s also a sense that someone who was once such a public figure has really removed herself from the spotlight. Is there something uncomfortable or unseemly you don’t want people to see about how difficult this process has been?
Did you realize we wrote a book [about this]? Than you’d have realized that the question you just asked doesn’t make any sense.
Well, I was initially told I might have an opportunity to interview her and when it was refused, I wondered why.
Whoever said she was gonna do that? First of all, nobody asked me. And if they did, my answer would have been: ‘No. She’s not going to do an interview with you.’ She did an interview with Diane Sawyer. Did you see that? She’s no longer a member of Congress; she’s focused on her recovery; and there’s nothing unseemly about her and I resent your choice of words. If you did watch the Diane Sawyer special or if you even went online before you did this interview with me, you would see how incredibly open we were. There is video of her doing speech therapy and occupational therapy and physical therapy. I don’t think we could have possibly been more open throughout this whole process. What really has surprised me is you haven’t asked one word about the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation. I thought that’s why you were doing this interview.
Is there anything specific you want to say about your relationship with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles?
I get contacted almost daily by people who want to present [Gabby] with some kind of award or honor at some kind of function. The SWC is one I looked at; I know what they stand for; and Gabby is Jewish. There’s very few of these that have made sense, that actually felt right. That’s one of the few that felt right—and she looked at it and said she wanted to go out there and accept that award.
Besides being married by a rabbi, what role has your wife’s Jewishness played in your life together?
I didn’t marry her because she was Jewish. I married Gabby because I was in love with her. We did have a Jewish ceremony—to some extent—there was also some military stuff in there. We celebrate Jewish holidays, so we have a Christmas tree and we have a menorah. I haven’t traveled to Israel; I look forward to doing that at some point. But I grew up in New Jersey. It’s not like Gabby is my first exposure to Judaism. I dated a girl in high school who was Jewish, and I used to walk to the Bagel Box every weekend to get bagels.
Is there any Jewish wisdom you’ve learned that just kind of stuck with you?
Not that I can think of right now.