A Brief History of Astronauts in Congress

This year, Arizona elected Mark Kelly to the Senate, making him the fourth astronaut elected to Congress

Mark Kelly stands on stage at a podium in front of the Arizona flag
“When you’re up in space looking down at the round blue ball we call Earth, it becomes pretty clear that we’re all in this together," said Mark Kelly on Twitter. Photo by Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

On November 3, Arizona elected Democratic candidate and former astronaut Mark Kelly to complete John McCain’s six-year term in the Senate, which ends in January 2023.

Before joining NASA’s 1996 class of astronaut candidates, Kelly served as a test pilot and captain in the United States Navy. Kelly completed four missions to the International Space Station before retiring from NASA and the U.S. Navy in 2011. Kelly announced his run for the senate seat in February 2019 and centered his campaign on science and the perspective he can bring as an engineer who’s seen Earth from orbit, he told the Verge’s Loren Grush in 2019. Now, he’s the fourth astronaut elected to Congress.

Kelly is married to former Arizona representative Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.

“Mark was the best candidate that the Democrats recruited to run for a U.S. Senate spot,” says Chuck Coughlin, a political strategist in Arizona, to the Atlantic’s Marina Koren. “It’s still a glamorous thing to be an astronaut.”

John Glenn

The first astronaut-turned-politician was John Glenn, who served as a Marine pilot and test pilot, and in 1962 became the first American and third person to orbit Earth. Glenn ran for congressional seats in Ohio for the first time in 1964, thwarted first by a head injury and then in later campaigns by a rival Democrat, Howard Metzenbaum in the primaries.

But in 1974, Metzenbaum blundered when he said in a campaign speech that Glenn—who’d served for two decades in the Marine Corps—had never held a real job. Four days before the primary election, Glenn gave a memorable speech that made his career. The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips republished the text of the speech in 2016 after Glenn’s death.

Here is an excerpt of the first half of that speech:

“It wasn't my checkbook, it was my life that was on the line. You go with me as I went the other day out to a veteran's hospital, look at those men out there with their mangled bodies in the eye and tell them they didn't hold a job. You go with me to any Gold Star Mother and you look her in the eye and you tell her that her son did not hold a job. You go to Arlington National Cemetery where I have more friends than I like to remember, and you think about this nation, and you tell me that those people didn't have a job.”

Glenn won the primary by over 100,000 votes and then won the general election. He would then win three more terms on the Senate, representing Ohio from 1974 to 1999. And in 1998, when Glenn was 77 years old, he became the oldest person to go to space to participate in a nine-day study on aging.

Harrison “Jack” Schmitt

After Glenn’s election in 1974, the next astronaut elected to Congress was Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the Apollo 17 lunar module pilot. New Mexico elected Schmitt to the Senate in 1977, Robert Z. Pearlman writes for Space.com. In 1972, Schmitt had become one of the last two people to walk on the moon. He served only one term in the Senate—his colleagues in Congress nicknamed him “Moonrock” for his abrasive and out-of-touch personality, reports the Atlantic. His opponent clinched the next election with an ad that asked voters, “What on Earth has [Schmitt] done for you lately?”

John “Jack” Swigert

In 1982, John “Jack” Swigert became the third astronaut elected to Congress, and the first to the House of Representatives, this time by Colorado. Swigert joined the Apollo 13 crew just three days before the mission because the original command module pilot, Thomas Mattingly, had been exposed to measles. Swigert never served as a Representative because he died of cancer in December of 1982 just before he would have taken office.

Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden, STS-90 payload specialist Jay Buckey, and STS-128 mission specialist and engineer José Hernández also ran for seats in Congress, but lost in either the primary or general elections, per Space.com.

Two members of Congress, Senator Jake Garn from Utah and Representative Bill Nelson from Florida, also travelled to space aboard space shuttles as congressional observers in the 1980s, before the Challenger tragedy.

“When you’re up in space looking down at the round blue ball we call Earth, it becomes pretty clear that we’re all in this together.” Kelly wrote on Twitter in September, per the Atlantic. “And that’s how politics should be: working together to solve problems and improve people’s lives.”

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