Call him the cosmic candidate. At 56 years old, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly has logged nearly two months in space as the pilot or commander of four space shuttle missions. After retiring from the astronaut corps in 2011, Kelly helped make history as the control subject in an unprecedented study on the way space affects the human body, in which his twin brother Scott spent a record-breaking 340 consecutive days in orbit. And now, the astronaut and Navy veteran is making waves after emerging as the front-runner in a high-stakes race for one of Arizona’s seats in the US Senate.
The Arizona race is a special election to fill the vacancy left by John McCain, who died of brain cancer in 2018. McCain’s seat was filled by a gubernatorial appointee until this November, when Arizonans will decide who will finish the final two years of his term. Kelly, a Democrat, announced his candidacy in early 2019 and sought to position himself as the independent voice of reason. “I’m running for the United States Senate because Washington is broken,” Kelly wrote on his website. “Partisanship keeps politicians from finding solutions, and all of the money in our political system keeps politicians from being accountable to the people they’re supposed to represent.”
(His campaign did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment.)
If Kelly wins, he would be among a small constellation of astronauts turned politicians, a coterie that includes two Apollo crew members and one space shuttle commander. On the trail, Kelly has played up his astronaut cred and scientific sensibilities. His campaign sells T-shirts that read “Science + Data + Facts,” bumper stickers featuring a space shuttle, and star-studded campaign buttons. It’s not hard to see why. Astronauts have been regarded as national heroes even before Buzz and Neil set foot on the moon. They’re the types of people kids want to be when they grow up. They’re daring adventurers who are willing to stare death in the face to push the boundaries of human knowledge and promote peace among nations. In short, astronauts are the exact opposite of whatever comes to mind when most people think of a politician.
“I think that most people are looking for independent representatives,” says Shaughnessy Naughton, the president and founder of 314 Action, a nonprofit organization that supports scientists running for office in the US and whose Action Fund has contributed to Kelly’s campaign. “They want honesty, they want transparency, and they want leaders that will base their conclusions on facts and evidence, and we’ve certainly seen that from Mark Kelly.”
In the early days of NASA’s human space program, some astronauts saw themselves as literally and figuratively above the trifling concerns of terrestrial politics. The sentiment was succinctly captured by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell after his journey to the lunar surface. “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty,” Mitchell said in an interview with People magazine after he returned. “You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
But others realized that their space age sheen could also launch them into some of the most powerful positions in government. Just two years after he became the first American to orbit Earth as part of NASA’s Mercury program, John Glenn ran for the US Senate. “By the time that he made his flight in Mercury, he was a household name, and he played that for all it was worth,” says Roger Launius, the former chief historian at NASA.
Despite his historic achievement, Glenn’s initial foray into politics was harshly criticized from both sides of the aisle. “The high office of the US Senator from the State of Ohio should not be made a hero’s pawn, no matter the breadth of our gratitude,” said House representative Charles Vanik in a 1964 article in the St. Petersburg Times. “This grave responsibility, so vital to the state and to the nation, should not be vested to the unprepared.” The same article also mentioned “uneasy speculation” among other members of Congress that Glenn might kick off a trend of senators from space.
But even though Glenn hadn’t spent time in office, he did have a lot of skills that are useful for statecraft. “He was a master at negotiating the bureaucracies of the Marine Corps and NASA,” says Launius. “He also knew how to play to the public, which is important if you’re going to run for any sort of office. So from that standpoint, he was really good at this.”
Glenn’s political dreams were put on pause just months before the election in 1964 when he slipped and fell in a tub. He lost during his next campaign in 1970. But in 1974, Glenn won a special election and was elected as a Democratic senator for Ohio, a position he held for the next 25 years. Aside from a failed campaign for president, Glenn’s political career was rather unremarkable. Most of the enacted bills he sponsored were for the creation of obscure national holidays, and Launius says he rarely ever broke ranks with his fellow Democrats. “He was a pretty reliable vote,” he says. “If the party was behind it, he was usually behind it.” Arguably, his most enduring legacy is setting a precedent for the astronaut turned politician.
Since Glenn’s election, a number of astronauts have run for congressional office. Harrison Schmitt, a member of the last Apollo mission to the moon, served as a Republican senator for New Mexico for a few years, and Jack Swigert, a member of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, won a seat in the House of Representatives after losing a bid for the US Senate, but he died before taking office. Being an astronaut isn’t a guaranteed ticket to Capitol Hill, however. Jack Lousma, a member of the second crew to visit Skylab, America’s first space station, lost a 1984 election to represent Michigan in the Senate. And Jose Hernandez, the most recent astronaut to run for Congress, lost to an almond farmer in California in 2012.
If Kelly is elected this November, he’ll be the the first astronaut on the Hill in nearly 40 years. Throughout most of his campaign, Kelly has had a lead over Republican incumbent Martha McSally in the polls reported by the political analysis site FiveThirtyEight, although polls added on Friday show them in a dead heat. That Kelly maintained a lead for so long in a state that has gone Republican in all but one of the past 17 presidential elections is surprising, especially given his lack of political experience.
Some of that might have to do with an electorate that’s hungry for evidence-based policy during a presidential administration that wages war on science. Arizonans have especially borne the brunt of anti-scientific politics during the coronavirus pandemic. Doug Ducey, the state’s governor, was slow to shut down businesses and quick to reopen them in the early stages of the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, Arizona has had an overall testing positivity rate of slightly over 14 percent, one of the highest in the nation.
“Communities are suffering, and the main reason they're suffering is we have a failure of leadership to address a serious pandemic,” Kelly said during a debate with McSally earlier this month. “I worked at NASA for 15 years, and NASA wouldn't give you the 17th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.”
Still, Kelly’s campaign seemed like a long-shot bid in a historically red state. He leans left on some policies—he advocates for health care as a right, ending tax breaks for large corporations, lowering interest on federal student loans, and more renewable energy—but is more centrist on others. As a gun owner and the spouse of Gabrielle Giffords, a former US representative who was shot in the face during an assassination attempt, Kelly advocates for universal background checks, but he also supports the right to bear arms. He says he wants strong borders, but also protection for “Dreamers,” children born in the US to parents who lack documentation. Kelly is not an archetypal Democrat—and he doesn’t want to be. He’s running on the idea that he’s a pilot, an engineer, and an astronaut, not a beltway bureaucrat.
“I’m someone who cares about independence, science, data, and facts,” Kelly said during an appearance on The View last year. “I don’t always see that from Washington, DC, and we have some serious issues we’re facing, and they’re not often being addressed.”
But his campaign’s focus on the virtues of being a Washington outsider is hardly unique. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump positioned himself as someone who could “drain the swamp,” overcoming the perceived impotence and ulterior motives of career politicians. Nichole Bauer, a political scientist at Louisiana State University and expert on the way political campaigns communicate, says this can be an effective strategy, but she thinks it's one of the least compelling aspects of Kelly’s messaging.
“When voters are looking for a candidate, they're really looking for somebody that can project power, strength, and authority,” says Bauer. “The best way to get those credentials is to have some sort of background in a stereotypically masculine profession. Kelly was in the military and he was an astronaut. There’s no better way to project those things than what Kelly does.”
Kelly and his opponent have a lot in common. Both have had illustrious careers in the military, and both have played up their outsider status in Washington. (McSally was a colonel in the Air Force and was the first US female squadron commander.) But now that she has served in the Senate for a year, it’d be hard for her to make the case she’s a true outsider. And even though both served in the military, Kelly has been to space. “The astronaut status gives him a leg up over McSally,” says Bauer. “If he was not an astronaut, he would definitely not have as much of a shot, because he wouldn't have that celebrity background and cachet.”
Even in an election cycle that has seen an unusually large amount of money flowing into Senate races, the spending on the Arizona race still stands out. Kelly’s campaign has raised more than $83 million, an astronomical sum that’s more than four times higher than the average cost of winning a Senate seat, and McSally’s campaign has raised nearly $50 million. Senate campaign funds from both parties have each allocated well over $10 million on ad campaigns attacking the other candidate, and out-of-state funding for both candidates tops the charts.
But this isn’t your average Senate race. Because it’s a special election, whoever Arizonans elect in November could take office before the end of the year, instead of waiting until January to be sworn in. That means Arizona’s new senator could provide a pivotal vote in the controversial Supreme Court nomination process of Amy Coney Barrett. While McSally has voiced her support for the nominee, during their debate this month Kelly said he’d vote no on Barrett’s nomination.
Arizona is a historically red state, but demographic trends have turned it purple over the past few years, and some analysts think this might be the year it goes blue. To science advocates, the fact that voters in a traditionally conservative state would embrace a candidate like Kelly is a reminder that change is possible, even at a time when science is under attack at the highest levels of government. “Very few people have gone to space, and hearing about that experience is super exciting and inspiring,” says Naughton. “I think it also gives voters an extra level of trust and confidence that he does have the right motivation for taking on this challenge. It's not just the next step in his congressional career. It’s that he sees a problem that he is well positioned to address and fix.”
Updated 10-27-20, 12:40 PM ET: If he's elected Mark Kelly will be the second NASA astronaut to make it to Congress on his first bid. Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt was the first.