A World Beyond
By Karen Duncan
Growing up, Mark Kelly didn't think becoming an astronaut could ever happen to him. It was astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, who inspired Kelly's dreams.
"We were in awe watching every launch," Mark admits, reminiscing of growing up in the Pleasantdale section of West Orange.
Mark's twin brother Scott agrees. His identical twin brother. His identical twin astronaut brother. Not only are they the world's first astronaut twins, they're also the only astronaut siblings.
"They were just terrific young men," remembers West Orange superintendent of schools Jerry Tarnoff, who was principal of Mountain High in 1982 when the Kelly brothers graduated. "But I'm not sure I'd thought of them as future astronauts," he adds, smiling. Tarnoff loves to share the fact that he attended, as Mark's guest, the 2001 launch in which Mark served as pilot for the Endeavor mission.
"Scott beat me into space," Mark admits with not a hint of jealousy. They are brothers who watch each other's backs and are enormously supportive of each other. Scott piloted the 1999 mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
"It's wonderful to have a brother, no less a twin in the same job," says their father, retired police captain Richard Kelly. "They understand exactly what it takes to do the job."
From the thousands of applications NASA receives, only a few are picked for the intensive astronaut candidate training program at Johnson Space Center, outside Houston, Texas. In the history of American space exploration there have been only 321 people chosen. So the odds that twin brothers would be part of that elite cadre are almost unimaginable.
"I always thought of them both as exceptional," says Dr. Mike Lawrence, physics teacher at West Orange High. "I take enormous pleasure in knowing they've accomplished such remarkable feats." The brothers credit Dr. Lawrence, who is still teaching today, as someone who made a marked difference in their education.
Both Mark and Scott, in addition to being space pilots, are test pilots, combat pilots, Navy lieutenant commanders, and engineers, and each of them has two children. But there are, in fact, differences between the two. Scott is more laid back, Mark more on the go. Mark's fiancée is Gabrielle Gifford, Arizona's newly elected congresswoman to the House of Representatives. It's a long-distance relationship that seems to suit them both beautifully.
"They were unassuming boys," Tarnoff reflects, "but with wonderful leadership skills. They went in different paths at first - to different colleges and such" - Mark to U. S. Merchant Marine Academy and the Naval Post Graduate School; Scott to State University of New York Maritime College, followed by a masters in aviation systems from the University of Tennessee - "yet ended up in the same field. Remarkable."
Last summer Mark made his second voyage into space as pilot of Discovery. He guided the ship as it made its 17,000 m.p.h. descent from space, concluding a highly successful 13-day mission to the International Space Station. Scott is currently assigned and training as the commander of an assembly mission to the International Space Station scheduled to launch this June. Mark hopes to command a mission in 2008.
"The benefits from space travel are enormous," Mark declares. Understandably defensive about detractors to the space program, he scoffs that "this country spends more money annually on dog food than the space program."
Since its inception in 1958, NASA has accomplished great scientific and technological feats in air and space. NASA technology also has been adapted for many non-aerospace uses by the private sector. As Mark points out, "Without space travel that little cell phone or laptop everyone loves would be the size of a car."
NASA remains a leading force in scientific research and in stimulating public interest in aerospace exploration, as well as in science and technology in general. Perhaps more importantly, our exploration of space has taught us to view Earth, ourselves, and the universe in a new way. While the tremendous technical and scientific accomplishments of NASA demonstrate vividly that humans can achieve previously inconceivable feats, the Kelly brothers are troubled that America turns out more lawyers than engineers, while Japan does the opposite. "It's a huge threat to our way of life," they suggest.
Being involved in the space program requires that one be good at and know a lot about many things. NASA chooses its astronauts from an increasingly diverse pool of applicants that "looks like America." From thousands of applications from all over the world, approximately 100 men and women are chosen for the rigorous astronaut candidate training program every two years.
The twins' mother, Patricia, - like her husband, a retired police officer - says she isn't surprised that her sons have lived similar lives. "I really do believe there is a genetic disposition for certain things," she says. To keep the twins on equal footing, their parents refused to tell them which one was older until they were 16. (Mark is older by six minutes.)
Though the odds of becoming an astronaut are not in your favor, the preparation begins in school. "Start with the basics and get them down first...you can't do anything without math and science," the brothers advise. They suggest knowing how and being able to work as a team player; understanding and appreciating both your ethnic, cultural and American history; and maintaining a grasp on current events.
A lot has changed in the space program since the 8-year-old Kelly brothers watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Their names have been added to the roster of the elite and privileged few. They will both continue to contribute significantly in the years to come. Astronauts of the 21st century, like West Orange's Kelly Brothers, will help lead NASA through the next steps of space exploration to our moon, Mars, and beyond.
Karen Duncan has toured NASA numerous times as her sister-in-law oversees security for Space Center Houston. She has thoroughly enjoyed meeting many of America's finest in the space program.