Most people go through their entire lives without checking any of the major fame boxes. In a nation of 325 million people, there are only so many NFL quarterbacks, Oscar winners and Nobel laureates. There are only so many astronauts and elected officials, too — so it’s especially rare when someone tries to succeed at both gigs. Mark Kelly, onetime NASA astronaut and husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is going for just that twofer, with his Feb. 12 announcement that he will run for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona during the 2020 cycle. Kelly, a Democrat, will be seeking to defeat incumbent GOP Senator Martha McSally.
Arizona is still tricky ground for a Democrat, though it’s been trending purple. And Kelly’s spaceman status confers instant name recognition—especially with the high political profile he and Giffords have maintained in their campaign for gun control after her near-fatal shooting in 2011. But astronaut-candidates have been few, and their success in the terrestrial mud of retail politics has been uneven.
America’s spaceman-politician talk got started almost as soon as the space program itself. In 1964, Gordon Cooper, one of the original seven astronauts, was courted to run as a Democrat for a Senate seat from Oklahoma—back in the era when there were still a few breeding pairs of Oklahoma Democrats left in the wild. Nobody who knew Cooper well, however, believed he would thrive in the micro-managed business of a political campaign, much less a political career. He had taken a breezy, wake-me-when-we’re-done approach to astronaut training, and actually did fall asleep on the launch pad waiting for liftoff before his 1963 flight. He ultimately—and probably wisely—decided against running.
Speculation about an astronaut-senator heated up again in 1968, after Apollo 8, commanded by veteran astronaut Frank Borman, became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon. Borman’s feet had barely touched Earth again before Barry Goldwater, Arizona Senator and the Republican Party’s 1964 presidential nominee, came calling, urging him to run for the state’s other Senate seat. Borman was flattered, but passed. He was a West Point graduate and an Air Force man, and very much liked the military’s crisp chain of command, in which orders are issued and promptly followed. He later confessed that the clubby Senate, with its slo-mo dealmaking, would have driven him mad.
Two years later, Borman’s Apollo 8 crewmate, Jim Lovell, went back into space as commander of Apollo 13. After an explosion crippled the spacecraft about 200,000 miles from Earth and Lovell improbably steered it back home and deposited himself and his crew safely in the Pacific Ocean, he could have had his choice of pretty much any political office he fancied. The Republican Party thought he would be a good fit as a candidate for the Senate from Wisconsin—where he spent much of his childhood—and he was approached by multiple members of the GOP aristocracy, including Illinois Senator Charles Percy and Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Lovell declined all of the offers. But the Party was undeterred, and he soon received a call from the White House. The operator said, “Hold for the President please,” and Richard Nixon came to the phone.
Nixon made more or less the same pitch Percy and Agnew had. Lovell once again responded with a polite “no,” this time adding that he really did not know the first thing about running for office, that it was late in the election cycle anyway, and that he had not raised any money.
“Captain,” Nixon responded, “money would not be a problem.”
Lovell’s hazard-alert antenna either did or didn’t twitch at that, but either way, he thanked the President, declined once more, and ended the call.
It would not be until 1974 that an astronaut would at last make it to the political majors, when John Glenn, who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the Earth, was elected to the Senate as an Ohio Democrat. He was originally encouraged to run in 1963 by his close friend, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. Glenn declared his candidacy at the end of that year, but just three months later, in February of 1964, the man who had flown 149 combat missions in World War II and Korea and orbited the Earth three times took a fall in a hotel bathtub, leading to a concussion and inner ear damage that his doctors warned him would require at least a year’s recovery. Glenn bowed out of the race, ran again in 1970, and this time lost in the primary. He finally won in 1974 and went on to serve four terms. In 1984 he ran for President, got clobbered in Iowa, New Hampshire and on Super Tuesday, and withdrew in March, but continued on in the Senate for 14 more years.
No astronaut before or since approached Glenn in terms of electoral success. In 1976, Apollo 17 moonwalker and New Mexico Republican Harrison Schmitt was elected to the Senate. But he served just one term before losing in 1982 to Democrat Jeff Bingaman, who famously asked voters, “What on Earth has he done for you lately?” That same election year, Jack Swigert, Lovell’s Apollo 13 crewmate, yielded to the electoral temptation his former commander had resisted and ran for Congress as a Republican from Colorado. He won, but just seven weeks after the election—and seven days before he would have been sworn in—he died of an aggressive bone cancer that had been diagnosed during the campaign.
If Mark Kelly wins his Senate bid next year, he will join a decidedly tiny fraternity, becoming only the fourth-ever American astronaut to win a federal election. That is one-third the number who have walked on the moon. Space is hard; politics—at least going by the numbers—may be harder.