It’s January 1991, and Mark Kelly is flying at top speed toward Iranian airspace. The self-confessed bad student has just done the first bombing run of his military pilot career over Basra, Iraq, and took so much anti-aircraft fire on the way in he’s decided to take another way out.
“There’s nothing more exciting than being shot at and missed,” he said, quoting former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “Bullets were coming out of the clouds below us.”
When his mid-air detour made him be mistaken for an Iraqi jet pilot and nearly shot down, he told the audience filling the floor of Rollins College’s Alfond Sports Center, that was one of many moments he realized maybe he wasn’t quite ready to be Top Gun.
Half a decade later, he was an astronaut. So was his twin brother, Scott, at the same time. Five years after that, he was flying a space shuttle.
The decorated war veteran spoke for more than an hour at Rollins April 4, regaling the crowd to U2’s “Beautiful Day” in the same way he serenaded his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, on his final Space Shuttle flight, STS134 in May 2011.
“It’s like the hand of God reached down and ripped you off the planet,” he said, describing the massive acceleration of being rocketed into space.
That Shuttle mission, the penultimate in the shuttle program’s 30-year run, was just a few months after an assassination attempt thrusted the couple into the public spotlight in a new way, despite two very public careers.
The story of Giffords’ near death and recovery after being shot in the head by assassin Jared Lee Loughner pervaded much of the event’s Q&A session, led by former U.S. Poet Laureate and Winter Park Institute Senior Distinguished Fellow Billy Collins. The evening was part of the Institute’s 2016-17 speaker season.
Many of the evening’s stories became before-and-after tales — life before and after the 2011 shooting took six lives, wounded a dozen more and changed Giffords forever.
“It was kind of neat being able to work with my brother for 15 years,” Kelly said of his unusual career alongside his identical twin. To this day the brothers are the only siblings to have traveled to space.
Kelly piloted two shuttle missions and command two more, at one point taking a call from Pope Benedict XVI after discovering a gash in the Shuttle Endeavour’s fuselage that may have compromised its chances of returning home.
But just like in his more than three dozen combat missions during Operation Desert Storm, he survived. Just a few days later, he announced his retirement from NASA and the U.S. Navy. He wanted to concentrate on helping his wife through her recovery.
She had only been on that road for a few months when he launched into space for the final time. In their book “Gabby — A Story of Courage, Love and Resilience,” there’s a photograph in the middle of it. He’s talking to his wife on the seashore in late April 2011. He wanted her to see his final mission blast off toward the stars. The waves in front of them are lapping the Cape Canaveral shore while she watches from a wheelchair.
Tuesday night, she strode across the stage to cheers.
“Things she found so easy to do are now very hard,” he said.
Speaking with a bubbly energy about her own recovery, she spoke only of the future and how she’s working to shape it.
“It will be a long hard haul, but I’m optimistic,” she said. “I’m still fighting to make the world a better place, and you can, too.”
She’s recovering in Houston these days, where the couple moved after she left the hospital. They’re trying everything to get her back to where she was: exercise, speech therapy, Spanish lessons, even music. She can play the French horn, her husband said, chiding her, “not very well.”
She’s learning the Beatles, he said.
Then Giffords spontaneously doodled her way through the first few bars of “Eight Days a Week.”
“That’s literally a great note to end on,” Collins said.
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