The Apollo 11 moon landing was not very memorable for 5-year-old Mark Kelly, who slept through the television broadcast of humankind’s biggest leap.
It was the astronauts, pilots and rockets of the later Apollo missions that helped seal his decision to become an astronaut.
“By the time I was in high school, I thought if I worked hard and got lucky, maybe I could be the first person to walk on the planet Mars, or at least one of those people,” he said with a chuckle.
Kelly, a former Navy pilot who flew during the First Gulf War and husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, spent a total of 54 days in space, mostly aboard the International Space Station. His twin brother, Scott, also a NASA astronaut, spent more than a year conducting research on the station.
Though Kelly recently announced his candidacy for an Arizona U.S. Senate seat in 2020, this week, he reflected on his former career with a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. There, he celebrated 50 years since the Apollo 11 launch with other past and present participants in NASA’s space program, including Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, Apollo 11 capsule communicator Charlie Duke and Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana.
“I think it’s important to use an anniversary like this to not only reflect upon where we’ve been, but also where we’re going as a country,” Kelly said.
His biggest takeaways from being in space include knowing when to slow down and how to collaborate with people from all over the world. Most notably, though, he developed a deeper appreciation for Earth itself.
“Seeing our planet, floating in the blackness of space, gives you this perspective that we are all in this together. We’ve got seven and a half billion of us on an island in our solar system,” he said.
From space, he said the earth’s atmosphere looks as thin and fragile as a contact lens on an eyeball, an observation that prompted him to make conscious changes to reduce his environmental impact since returning to Earth.
And though he said managing the resources on Earth should be more of a priority today, space exploration remains as beneficial as it was half a century ago.
“As we learn more about the earth and our place in our solar system and in our galaxy, we understand more about things like fundamental physics. It’s good for us. More knowledge helps us meet the challenges that we face,” Kelly said.
Though Kelly retired from NASA in 2011, he is still holding out on his dream to see Mars – through the journey of another lucky astronaut.