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From Outer Space to Congress

Politics,Congress,Mark Kelly
Jillian Kramer
Tristan Dubin
March 15, 202111:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

In November, Mark Kelly became the fourth astronaut to be elected to Congress — a feat nearly as unlikely as the average American landing on the moon.

"Astronauts are far more likely to get killed than they are to be elected to public office,”

says Matthew Hersch, professor of science history at Harvard University and author of “Inventing the American Astronaut.” 

That’s not to say astronauts haven’t run for office, and that a few haven’t won seats. In fact, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, served so many years in the Senate that by the time Lori Garver met him in 1984, she thought of him first as a politician, not as an astronaut. 

“It is fascinating to me that during his life he spent time wanting to be more than that [first orbit] in space — and ultimately, he realized that [his time] in space was going to shape him more than anything else ever could,” says Garver, the CEO of Earthrise Alliance and former deputy administrator of NASA, who met Glenn when she worked on his unsuccessful bid for president. 

A Rocky Path to Office

More than a decade after that iconic orbit, Glenn was the first astronaut to be elected to public office, serving 25 years as a senator from Ohio — five times as many years as he gave to NASA.

While he was well-liked by his party and pursued strong foreign policy, Glenn would ultimately return to science: In 1998, while he was still a senator, Glenn flew on the Space Shuttle to study the effects of space on the body. At 77 years old, he was the oldest person to ever fly in space.

Glenn paved the way for Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the Apollo 17 lunar module pilot, and John “Jack” Swigert, the command module pilot of Apollo 13, to win Congressional seats. However, Swigert passed away in 1982, before he could take his seat in the House of Representatives.

But the path wasn’t easy: Glenn dropped out of or lost two races before his Senate win in 1974, and with each campaign, he faced harsh criticism from established officials and even the public, who had adored the astronaut but couldn’t quite throw their support behind the politician. Some believed Glenn was cashing in his celebrity to take office, says Hersch. Though Ronald Reagan had traded Hollywood movie sets for the California governor’s office and later, the White House, many felt astronauts had a different, non-partisan obligation to the country, Hersch explains. 

Early astronauts who ran for office were also accused of political naivety.

Schmitt, a geologist, was one of the first scientists to walk on the moon. But while his scientific accomplishments may have been many, he was politically inexperienced when he entered Congress in 1977 as a senator from New Mexico. He was “targeted,” Hersch says, for his lack of knowledge about “how the system works.” And during his re-election campaign, which he ultimately lost, Schmitt’s opponent asked voters in a pithy campaign slogan, “What on Earth has he done for you lately?” 

(Asked why he felt called to serve as a politician, Schmitt wrote in an email to Supercluster that his concern over “larger government and ever less personal liberty” bloomed in college, adding that “my greatest reward turned out to be helping constituents deal with a government seemingly less and less interested in their well-being and that of their children and grandchildren.”)

Jack Lousma, who commanded the third Space Shuttle mission and was part of the Skylab space station crew, lost a senate race in 1984. Jose Hernandez, a crew member of the STS-128 mission to the Space Shuttle, lost a House of Representatives seat in 2012. Neither campaigned again. 

The Future of Politics

“When you’re looking for examples of really successful astronauts-turned-politicians, short of John Glenn, you have trouble finding them,” says Hersch. Kelly’s election could change that.

Whether it does, of course, is yet to be seen. But what’s almost certain is that we will continue to see astronauts reach for political seats. Astronauts are tough, capable, highly intelligent, and have a sense of duty, Hersch says. “It seems like a fairly natural fit” for them to enter politics, he adds.

That’s a sentiment Noah Petro, a NASA geologist and project scientist for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, and collaborator with and friend of Schmitt, can understand. Petro recalls a time that he picked Schmitt up from a hotel to take him to the airport, and he saw the former astronaut in conversation with someone in the lobby. “The other guy was doing all the talking,” Petro says.

Watching Schmitt simply listen, Petro says he learned something about the former astronaut and senator. “He is interested in the art of discussion,” he says. “It’s not about soothing his ego in every conversation. It’s about learning about other people — or learning more about everything.”

That desire to engage — that “desire to serve and learn,” as Petro says — might be what drives astronauts to public office. “What's the playbook for being an ex-astronaut?” Petro asks. “Retire and do nothing? No. These are incredibly driven, talented men and women. And I know it’s only a matter of time before we have the first elected female astronaut.”

Of course, it’s not just astronauts who seek public office. People who work behind the scenes to launch astronauts into space vie for such service roles, too. Chelsea Partridge is a senior test engineer for Lockheed Martin Space at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, and she recently won a supervisor seat on the Soil and Water Conservation District in Brevard County, Florida. “I believe most space professionals love working in the space industry because we see it as a way to advance technology and society as a whole,” Partridge tells Supercluster.

“I see public servants as having a similar mindset — wanting to make the world around them a better place.”

Jillian Kramer
Tristan Dubin
March 15, 202111:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)