Monday, November 14, 2011
Esquire names Mark Kelly, the astronaut husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, as an American of the Year:
Somewhere along the way, astronauts diverge from the rest of us. The pilots, especially, become something different. Their standards of "ordinary" change, particularly after they've traveled into space, and Kelly had gone up three times already. He was now forty-seven years old. He had become a naval aviator in 1987; he flew thirty-nine combat missions in Operation Desert Storm. Next he became a test pilot, one of the best, spending more than five thousand hours in more than fifty different aircraft. Nearly four hundred times, he had landed his plane on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Each time, he had looked out his cockpit at the rolling ship below, slipped down, and hit his throttle just as he was landing. It's counterintuitive, but throttling up meant he'd have enough power to lift back off the deck in case something went wrong. It was one of a Navy pilot's most important lessons: Sometimes the best way out of a bad situation is to hit the gas.
In space, Kelly had received further instruction in catastrophe. On his third trip into orbit, he had delivered a part to the International Space Station, where the residents needed badly to fix their broken toilet. His previous flight had been only the second after the Columbia disaster. Astronauts understand: Something always goes wrong. On the day his wife was shot, during the torturous flight that Kelly, his mother, and his daughters from a previous marriage made from Houston to Tucson, there were twenty minutes when he thought he had lost his wife for good. He was flying on a friend's private plane, and he had turned on the TV to watch reports of the shooting. "It was a terrible mistake," he said later. In the chaos, someone said that his wife was dead. His mother practically screamed, he remembered after; his daughters cried. Kelly retreated to the bathroom. "I just, you know, walked into the bathroom and, you know, broke down," he said. Eventually, he managed to get through to someone at the hospital, and he found out then that Giffords was, in fact, alive. "As bad as it was that she had died," Kelly said, "it's equally exciting that she hadn't."