From Astronaut to Senator: Mark Kelly Takes Office

From Astronaut to Senator: Mark Kelly Takes Office

Former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly took the oath of office today to become the junior Senator from Arizona. He is filling the last two years of the late Sen. John McCain’s term after defeating Martha McSally, who had been appointed to the position after McCain’s death.

Kelly was sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence in his capacity as President of the Senate at 2:00 pm ET accompanief by the senior Senator from Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema.  It is the first time in almost 70 years that Arizona has been represented in the Senate by two Democrats.

Mark Kelly, right, being sworn in by Vice President Pence (with back to camera), with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). Sinema is wearing a purple wig, part of her campaign to remind people to avoid hair salons during the pandemic.  December 2, 2020. Screengrab from C-SPAN.

Kelly is a four-time space shuttle astronaut. He was pilot of STS-108 and STS-121, and commanded STS-124 and STS-134.  His last flight took place while his wife, Gabby Giffords, then a Congresswoman from Arizona, was recovering from an assassination attempt that killed six and wounded 13.   Giffords continues to recover from her near-fatal brain injury, but was with her husband today at the Capitol.

Mark Kelly and his wife, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, arrive at the Capitol for Kelly’s swearing in as a Senator from Arizona, December 2, 2020. Screengrab from C-SPAN.

Only Senators and designated Senate staff are allowed on the Senate floor, which is why she was not present when he was formally sworn in, but she was by his side during a traditional ceremonial swearing-in later in the afternoon.

She also tweeted a photo when he was by her side during her swearing in as a Congresswoman in 2007.

Mark Kelly also is the identical twin brother of former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who holds the record for the longest U.S. continuous spaceflight (340 days).  Both are former Navy pilots.

Mark Kelly and his family paid their respects to McCain, another Navy pilot, at his gravesite yesterday.  He died of brain cancer in August 2018.

With his arrival, Republican control of the Senate narrows from 53-47 to 52-48.

Kelly is the fifth person who has flown in space to serve in the Senate.  John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth in 1962 and who flew into space again in 1998, served for 24 years (1974-January 1999) as a Democratic Senator from Ohio. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt was a Republican Senator from New Mexico from 1976-1982.  In 1985, Jake Garn, a Republican Senator from Utah who chaired the appropriations subcommittee that funded NASA (and a former Navy pilot) was the first member of Congress to fly into space on STS 51-D.  In January 1986, Bill Nelson flew on STS 61-A, the space shuttle flight just before the Challenger tragedy. At the time, the Florida Democrat chaired a House subcommittee that authorized NASA activities. He was later elected to the Senate and served there from 2001-2019.

Kelly will have to run for reelection in 2022 if he wants to keep the job.


Note: updated to add Jake Garn to the list of Senators who have flown in space.

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