Captain Mark Kelly, a 1986 alum of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy who went on to become a naval aviator and NASA astronaut, delivered an inspiring commencement address to the 219 members of the class of 2012 on Monday that was amplified by the presence of his wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
“You are at a crossroads, where destiny not yet been determined, where you can set your own path,” Kelly said “At this junction in life, I had big goal. I wanted to be first person to walk on Mars. My crazy ambition turned out… I didn’t get to Mars, but I got close.”
Kelly went into space four times: twice as a shuttle pilot and twice as commander, and commanded the last mission of Endeavor before the shuttle craft was retired.
He flew that historic mission as his wife was recovering – but out of danger – from being gunned down as she held a “Congress on the Corner” event in Tucson, Arizona on January of 2011.
Giffords, who sat in the audience and rose at the national anthems of the United States and the foreign countries represented by graduates were played, received a standing ovation. Their daughter was also in attendance.
Kelly and Giffords were joined at the academy’s 76th Commencement Exercises by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, making a return visit to the school, and Maritime Administrator David T. Matsuda.
Matsuda, in his remarks, said the merchant marine academy has always been a priority for the Obama Administration, and that new cargo security systems demonstrate the administration’s interest “in a future built on seafaring.”
LaHood also emphasized the administration’s deep commitment to the merchant marine academy, and its belief that “a strong merchant marine is not a luxury, but a necessity for U.S. security.
“It is part of an investment in an America built to last,” LaHood said.
In his address, Kelly drew on his own experience and urged the graduating class to set ambitious goals and not give in to defeat and failure.
“I drove out this gate and went directly to Pensacola to flight school,” Kelly recounted. “I had the cheesy music from the movie ‘Top Gun’ playing on the radio as I drove through gate, ‘Danger’. I found out that I am not a maverick – not even a good pilot.
“I had to land on aircraft carrier,” Kelly continued. “They send you by yourself for the first time since nobody is crazy enough to go with you. All you have is the skills acquired from practice – which is not much. I had two touch-and-go and four arrested landings. After that, my commander asked, ‘Are you sure this is the career for you?’ Tom Cruise – the actor – would have been better.”
But, Kelly continued, “The others who did well that day did not go on to be astronauts. How you do at beginning isn’t necessarily [how things will turn out]. I am prime example of someone able to overcome lack of aptitude with persistence, drive. Remember, I started out as a lousy pilot and ended up commanding a rocket ship into space.”
Kelly went on to discuss his experience as a pilot flying combat missions during Desert Storm, the first Gulf war against Saddam Hussein, and the importance of communication.
He recalled on one mission he had flown 150 miles into Iran to avoid air fire without alerting allied forces when he heard a call to scramble fighters.
“I looked at the coordinates and realized it was my plane they were coming to attack,” Kelley said. “I had just survived Russian missiles but was about to be shot down by US F 18s.”
Kelly said he got on the radio and said, “Do not shoot down the moron in Iranian airspace. I was nearly killed because I didn’t properly communicate. Communication is crucial.
“All of you will likely work on a team – it is critical to communicate,” he added. “I learned that lesson early and it nearly cost me my life.”
Kelly also offered advice about decision-making – in one’s professional and personal life.
“After my wife injured, I wanted not to make bad decision about her care,” he said. “ At the hospital, I saw a saying on the wall: ‘None of us is as dumb as all of us.’ Sometimes a team makes a decision that no single person would make – group think.”
Kelly said his experience over past year after the accident, also taught him “a thing or two about power of human spirit.
“It’s been an incredible experience to watch Gabby first survive, then come back. Each day as she goes off to therapy she says, ‘Fight, fight, fight.’”
The lesson he draws from that: deny the acceptance of failure
“Life can present unanticipated challenges. Deny the acceptance of failure,” he said. “I went to school here. Graduation comes with high expectations – from family and others… Listen to those. But listen to yourself. Find the thing, a job that makes you happy. You can’t live anyone else’s experience.
The valedictorian of the class, Midshipman Lieutenant Riley Scott McQuiston of Burien, Washington, reminded his fellow classmates of the demands for graduating the academy, which includes a semester at sea.
Graduates, who had to be nominated to attend by their congressperson, represented nearly every state and the five foreign countries of Panama, Singapore, South Korea, Philippines and Malaysia.
Approximately 2,300 guests attended the event, including family members and guests of the graduating class, and distinguished visitors representing the federal government, flag and general officers from the Armed Forces, senior executives from industry, community leaders, alumni, faculty and staff.
The procession was led by members of the Legacy Class of 1962.