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Ex-astronaut offers outlook full of hope

Mark Kelly orbited Earth 854 times. He flew 39 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm and has helped his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, through a grueling recovery after an assassination attempt near Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people.

But it was a spinal tap that had Kelly sounding a bit uneasy last week.

“They just did one on my brother,” Kelly told me by phone, “and the researchers that were doing the spinal tap on him, they really want to do one on me. I think they’re hesitant to ask, but I told them it would be OK to ask.”

“I’ll probably even do it,” he added with a hint of humor. “I’m probably not going to like it.”

Kelly and his identical twin, Scott, ignited a new wave of excitement over America’s astronauts this month when Scott Kelly returned to Earth after nearly a year aboard the International Space Station. NASA is studying the twins to determine what effects living in space has on the body.

While his brother was in orbit, Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut and former Navy captain, periodically got a battery of blood draws, ultrasounds and other tests.

“We’ve been told by one of these researchers that they’re going to have more scientific data on Scott and I than any other human ever,” Kelly said.

All with the hope it will help shape a long-term mission to Mars.

There’s a tendency lately in America to view our country as one in decline, one that’s failing on too many fronts. It’s easy to feel as if we’re far more jaded than the days when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969.

There’s a remedy: Listen to a guy like Kelly. He’s incredibly optimistic about our country and what today’s kids will do. What gives him hope for the future?

“Our ability to invent things and innovate entire industries and the capacity of the American people, engineers and scientists and artists, to just create new things that haven’t existed before,” Kelly said. “That capacity is still within us.”

Kelly was 5 when Armstrong took that first iconic step. “I was parked in front of the TV,” Kelly said of the Apollo 11 broadcast. “I don’t remember it. I think I must have fallen asleep, because my brother does remember it.”

He says he was too much of a realist even back then to think he would someday go into space himself. He knew the numbers. He knew that jobs such as baseball player or astronaut have long odds. But he studied hard, earning degrees in engineering before becoming a pilot.

Kelly is exactly the type of role model who can show kids why it’s important to study fields like science or engineering. He shot for space and made it. Today, kids can shoot for Mars. “I often tell them that the first person to walk on Mars is alive today,” he said, “and it’s probably somebody like them.”

Even for an astronaut, there are still new sights to explore. I spoke with Kelly ahead of his appearance in Niagara Falls next week to give the keynote speech during the two-day Western New York Safety Conference.

He has seen the famous falls, but only from the cockpit of an aircraft. He used to fly over them during trips out of Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland to build up flight time.

Next week, he’ll finally walk up to the side of the river and feel the mist.