February 19, 2013

At UT Arlington, ex-astronaut extols the power of the human spirit

Former astronaut Mark Kelly tells stories about circling the Earth 854 times and answering a phone call to learn that his wife had been shot in the head. But ultimately Tuesday night during a speech at the University of Texas at Arlington, he talked about life lessons.

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ARLINGTON -- Mark Kelly had stories to tell about dodging anti-aircraft missiles, circling the Earth 854 times and answering a phone call to learn that his wife had been shot in the head.

Lately, he's been caught up in the political storm about gun rights.

But ultimately Tuesday night during a speech at the University of Texas at Arlington, he talked about life lessons he's picked up.

For example, he told about a plaque at NASA that reads, in big, bold letters, "None of us is as dumb as all of us."

After the laughter quieted, Kelly elaborated.

"Sometimes a group of people can be asked to make a decision and as a group you will march off and make a decision that no one would have made if it was their job to make that decision by themselves," he said. "It happened with Challenger and it happened again with Columbia."

Both space shuttles disintegrated, one on takeoff, one on re-entry, killing a total of 14 astronauts.

A retired astronaut, Kelly spoke to a sold-out crowd in Texas Hall as part of UTA's Maverick Speakers Series.

Kelly's first trip into space, in 2001, was on the shuttle Endeavour, the same one he commanded on his final trip in May 2011. Each of his four space missions was to the International Space Station.

In those four trips, he orbited the Earth 854 times.

Kelly, wearing a blue flight jacket, described the space launch experience.

"It's like the hand of God came and pulled you right off from the launchpad," he said. "It's like driving down the railroad tracks on a runaway train at 100 mph."

Before his last trip on Endeavour, Kelly's wife, then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot on Jan. 8, 2011, at an event in Tucson, Ariz. The story, and her recovery, captured the nation's attention.

"The power of the human spirit is a wonderful thing," he said. "Gabby, before she goes off to therapy each and every day, one of the things she says to me is, 'Fight, fight, fight.' She reminds me to deny the acceptance of failure."

Before the speech, Kelly took questions from reporters, including about his and Giffords' support for President Barack Obama's gun safety initiative.

Requiring universal background checks and making it harder for people to buy assault rifles and high-capacity magazines would go far toward reducing what Kelly called a firearm homicide rate that's 20 times as high as in comparable countries.

"It's pretty simple," he said of universal checks. "It takes less than five minutes."

He said polls show that 92 percent of Americans and 74 percent of National Rifle Association members support background checks.

"I don't think you'll find a stronger supporter of the Second Amendment," he said.

In his speech, Kelly, who grew up in New Jersey in the mid-1960s, said his mother's dedication to becoming one of that state's first female police officers encouraged him to have a dream.

"It was one of the first times I remember seeing the power of having a goal and a plan and working really, really hard," he said. "I started to come up with some plans and goals of my own."

Kelly, who retired in October 2011, reached the rank of captain in the Navy.

He earned more than 18 service awards and decorations, including a Naval Pilot Astronaut badge, a Defense Superior Service Medal and a Legion of Merit.

He flew 39 missions in Operation Desert Storm. In his speech, he talked about dodging anti-aircraft missiles while flying over Iraq. He shared a quote from Winston Churchill: "There is nothing more exciting than being shot at and missed."

To which Kelly replied: "It's kind of exciting, but until you know you're not going to die, it's not very fun."

He and Giffords co-wrote Gabby: A Story of Courage, Love and Resilience, and he released a children's book, Mousetronaut, in 2012.

UTA student Rebekah Karth brought her copy of Mousetronaut so she could have it signed for her boyfriend, an aerospace engineering major.

"It's an incredibly adorable story," she said. "A great keepsake to have."

Staff writer Patrick Walker contributed to this report.

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