Retired astronaut Mark Kelly announced on February 12 that he will run for U.S. Senate in next year’s Arizona special election. But Kelly isn’t the first astronaut to launch a new career in politics.
John Glenn: Mercury-Atlas 6 To The Senate (And Back To Space)
John Glenn became the first to follow that particular trajectory. After flying combat missions as Marine pilot in World War Two and the Korean War, Glenn took on an even riskier role as a test pilot until NASA selected him as one of its first seven astronauts in 1959. He orbited Earth three times in the Friendship 7 capsule — becoming the first American to do so — and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean as a national hero. Thanks to his fame and the hazards of the early space program, then-President John F. Kennedy and NASA decided they couldn’t risk letting him fly again, so Glenn left the agency in 1964.
He immediately threw himself into Ohio’s 1964 senate race as a Democratic candidate — likely with some urging from Robert Kennedy — but had to withdraw after a fall in a hotel bathroom left him with an inner ear injury that made him too unsteady for the campaign trail. He gave politics another shot in 1970 but lost the primary by a narrow margin of 51% to 49%. Four years later Glenn tried again and won, and he held the seat until his retirement in 1999.
In the final years of his career, Glenn urged NASA to put him on a space shuttle flight in order to investigate the similarities between aging and some of the physiological effects of space travel. (Some in the space community expressed skepticism about the senator’s scientific motives.) In 1998, the last year of his last Senate term, the then 77-year-old Glenn blasted off aboard the space shuttle Discovery as a payload specialist for the STS-95 mission. The mission made Glenn the oldest person to leave the planet (so far) and the only astronaut to fly in both the Mercury and space shuttle programs.
Jack Swigert: Apollo 13 To Election Victory And Tragedy
It took Air Force test pilot Jack Swigert three tries to become an astronaut. NASA passed up his application to join their second and third groups of astronauts, but in 1966, the agency accepted Swigert into the Apollo program. Swigert was a pilot, and he wanted to fly; while most Apollo astronauts hoped for a chance to walk on the Moon, Swigert specifically requested duty as a command module pilot, the astronaut who would remain in orbit around the Moon while the lunar module landed. But Swigert and his crewmates never got to the Moon at all; an oxygen tank ruptured, prompting Swigert to utter the now-famous, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Apollo 13 and its crew made it safely home, leaving behind only its third stage rocket on the lunar surface.
Like Glenn, Swigert lost his first primary race — for a senate seat from Colorado in 1978. He tried again in 1982 and won a seat as a Republican in a newly-formed congressional district. But during his campaign, a cancer that first formed in his nasal passages spready rapidly to his lungs and into his bones. Swigert died in December 1982, just a week before he would have taken his oath of office.
Harrison Schmidt: Apollo 17 To The Senate, Then To Academia
Today, NASA’s astronauts are scientists, engineers, pilots, doctors, and teachers, but in the early 1960s, there was only one career path that led to space: test pilot. But astronaut Harrison Schmidt didn’t even learn to fly until he joined NASA in 1965. He spent a year learning to fly jets before moving on to other aspects of astronaut training — and the job of teaching a group of military test pilots how to do field geology on the Moon. Schmidt was one of NASA’s first scientist-astronauts, and his selection for the Apollo program marked a shift in how NASA and the U.S. thought about the nature of space exploration.
He helped train his fellow astronauts in the basics of field geology, equipping them to observe the lunar surface as scientists and gather useful samples to return to Earth. Back on Earth, he helped analyze the rock and dust samples other Apollo crews carried home from the Moon, waiting for his turn to fly. It finally came in 1972, when Schmidt became the first scientist in space on the Apollo 17 mission; he also became one of the last two people to walk on the Moon (for now).
Jake Garn and Bill Nelson: Congress To The Space Shuttle
Sometimes the trajectory goes the other way; Senator Jake Garn of Utah and then-Representative (now Sentaor) William Nelson of Florida both joined space shuttle flights as mission specialists and “congressional observers” in the late 1980s. Garn, a former Navy pilot and a Republican who held his Senate seat from 1974 until his retirement in 1993, flew on the STS-51-D mission aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1985. He participated in a medical experiment on motion sickness, and reportedly his symptoms were so extreme that they became the stuff of legend among shuttle astronauts. William Nelson, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a Democrat who served as a U.S. representative from 1979 to 1991 and a senator from 2001 to 2019, flew on the STS-51-C mission aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986.
Mark Kelly: Space Shuttle To The Campaign Trail
Kelly, a former naval aviator, became an astronaut in 1996 — the same year as his identical twin brother, astronaut Scott Kelly. He spent a total of 54 days in space on four space shuttle missions, first as a pilot and then as a commander. That included the 2001 STS-121 mission, the second flight after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia, on which astronauts tested new equipment and procedures. His final flight, the 2011 STS-134 mission, also marked the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour.
Now, the former astronaut is running as Democrat to fill the seat formerly held by Republican Senator John McCain — also a retired naval aviator. And if Kelly wins the primary, he’ll be running against another former combat pilot, Air Force veteran Martha McSally, who was appointed to replace McCain after his death last year, pending next year’s special election.