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NewsMar 29, 2018

Husband, wife transcend world and its troubles

Astronaut Mark Kelly and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords inspire Boston Speakers Series crowd

Gabby Giffords waves and Mark Kelly clasps his hands on stage.

Mark Kelly is a man with extraordinary perspective.

He has piloted the Space Shuttles Endeavour and Discovery and is one of only two people to have visited the International Space Station on four separate occasions. Kelly has literally seen the world in a way that only a figurative handful of people ever have.

“I don’t know why we called it Earth. We should have called it ‘Water,’” Kelly joked.

(View more photos from the event.)

But the astronaut’s view of the blue, round (he emphasized) world is hardly the extent of his perspective. Kelly is also the loved one of a victim of gun violence, so he has also seen the world in a way that a multitude of people have.

In 2011, Kelly’s wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head while she was talking to her constituents in Tucson, Arizona. She underwent a number of brain surgeries and survived, yet emerged with significant paralysis, damage to her ability to speak, as well as aphasia, making it difficult for her to process information.

However, through extensive physical and psychological therapy, yoga, and her optimism and indomitable spirit, Giffords has regained the ability to walk, speak and serve as an inspiration to those she meets or who are otherwise familiar with her story.

She inspired the capacity crowd gathered Wednesday night in Symphony Hall for Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series. She joined Kelly, the featured speaker, to deliver a few motivational words of her own and answer a few questions conveyed to the couple by moderator Jared Bowen of WGBH (our media partner for the sold-out subscription series).

Throughout the encounter, the couple’s love and robust sense of humor were obvious.

When Kelly was asked about the most frightening part of his time in space, Giffords piped up, “Oh, the toilet!”

From left: Gabby Giffords, Trustee Chair Hans Strauch, Dari Paquette and Mark Kelly
From left: Gabby Giffords, Board of Trustees Chair Hans Strauch, Dari Paquette and Mark Kelly

Space and other empty places

Kelly explained that zero-gravity environments are inhospitable to efficient plumbing, either in facilities or in the human body. In space, digestion is difficult and sleep is often elusive, as astronauts fold themselves into their sleeping bags and can’t really find a place to lay their heads, since zero gravity means zero natural resting place.

“I went to roll over on my side,” Kelly explained of one fitful night in orbit. “What a stupid thing to do — I just ended up twisted in my sleeping bag.”

In addition, closing one’s eyes in space offers little rest, as gamma rays shoot through the retina, creating a light show on the eyelids, and morbid ruminations over the radiation shooting constantly through the body.  

And this isn’t a case where getting there is half the fun. The prospects of failure to launch or return — cataclysmic failure experienced by the crews of the Space Shuttles Challenger, which exploded on takeoff in 1986, and Columbia, which disintegrated upon re-entry in 2003 — is about as likely as randomly drawing the ace of spades out of a deck of playing cards.

Once aloft, though, what’s it like to pilot the shuttle?

“This is the worst airplane I’ve ever flown in my lifetime, by far,” Kelly said, adding that the Space Shuttle is the greatest space ship in the world, a pretty good rocket and a lousy glider, approaching the runway about as gracefully as a vending machine.

But at least Kelly’s voyages to space had the benefit of a countdown clock to prepare him. He had no such preparation on Jan. 8, 2011. On that day, Giffords and 17 other people were shot in the parking lot of a grocery store, where the congresswoman was meeting constituents. Six people were killed, but initial reports added one more: CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all declared that Giffords had succumbed to her gunshot wound to the head.

Kelly, who had been informed of the shooting, was in the air halfway between Houston — home base for astronauts — and Arizona when he saw the television report that he was now a widower.

Except Kelly wasn’t widowed. His wife was still alive, but still in emergency surgery.

Gabby, he said, “wasn’t going to be taken out by cable news.”

She also wasn’t going to be taken out by a murder-minded gunman.

“Despite putting a bullet in her head, he hasn’t put a dent in her spirit,” Kelly said.

 Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelley pose with President Jeff Weiss and his wife Gerri.
Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelley pose with President Jeff Weiss and his wife Gerri.

Coming back

Giffords has survived a gunshot wound, numerous surgeries and has a prosthetic partial skull. She keeps the original portion frozen in Tupperware.

Her recovery is a work in progress, with the emphasis on the work (the aforementioned therapy and yoga), and is a miracle of determination, or perhaps a miracle any way one looks at it.

“It’s been a long, hard haul, but I’m getting better,” Giffords said, after walking out to the stage guided by her husband, and after the crowd had retaken their seats after a standing ovation.

Her advice: “Be passionate. Be courageous. Be your best.”

To kick off the lecture, emcee Jared Bowen announced a crowd-pleasing lineup of newsmakers, American icons and other leaders guaranteed to make 2018-19 Boston Speakers Series ticket holders think and, more than likely, laugh out loud. Who are they? You’ll just need to find out here!