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Senator Mark Kelly

MS in Aeronautical Engineering ‘94

Mark Kelly has served his country as a U.S. Navy combat pilot, a NASA astronaut, and now as a U.S. Senator for Arizona. As the son of two police officers, Kelly learned the value of public service at an early age. He attended public schools from elementary school all the way through graduate school. Kelly earned his B.S. degree in marine engineering and nautical science from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and later an M.S. degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

As a Navy pilot, he made multiple deployments on the aircraft carrier USS Midway and flew 39 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm. Kelly is the recipient of the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and multiple Air Medals. He has logged more than 5,000 flight hours in more than 50 different aircraft and has over 375 carrier landings.

Senator Kelly retired from the Navy with the rank of Captain. In 1996, he was selected as an astronaut in the same NASA class as his identical twin brother Scott. Kelly's first of four trips into space was as pilot of STS-108 in December 2001, during which he helped deliver equipment, supplies and additional crew members to the International Space Station. All in all, Kelly has spent more than 50 days in space — traveling over 20 million miles. He retired from NASA in 2011 after commanding Space Shuttle Endeavour on its final flight.

Now, Senator Kelly has embarked on his next mission — serving as a U.S. Senator for Arizona, in the seat once held by Senator John McCain. After being sworn in on December 2, 2020, Kelly went right to work helping Arizona get through the COVID-19 pandemic. Kelly serves on the Armed Services, Environment and Public Works, Energy and Natural Resources, Aging, and Joint Economic Committees. He is Chair of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he focuses on making sure the U.S. has the research and technology needed to outcompete our adversaries like China.

"Technology is changing at an unprecedented pace, and we need to equip our leaders with the skills to navigate this new reality. Our adversaries are leveraging all sectors of society to create the new technologies that will be used in conflicts of the future. Americans choose to work and innovate together, and that’s how we’ll win."

How did your Naval Postgraduate School education impact your career in the U.S. Navy and a NASA? How did it equip you to contribute to U.S. national security in your career as a politician?

The engineering education that I got at the Naval Postgraduate School gave me the academic background I needed to become competitive to be selected as an astronaut. When I came to grad school, I had already flown 39 combat missions, and thought I was a pretty good pilot. But to be a test pilot and an astronaut, you need to be more than just a good pilot. You need to understand your airplanes – or space shuttles – how they work, what their limits are, and what can go wrong. That’s what I learned at the Naval Postgraduate School, and I called upon that knowledge often, whether I was pushing the F-18 to its limits as a test pilot or testing contingency abort procedures in the space shuttle simulator. More than just the engineering education, the Naval Postgraduate School also made me a better problem solver, something that I put to use at every stage of my career, including as a Senator.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to pursue any of the career paths that you have had the opportunity to excel in, as a combat pilot, a NASA astronaut, or a U.S. Senator? 

It sounds simple, but my best advice is to work hard in school. I attended public schools, all the way from kindergarten to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. I wasn’t always the best student, especially in middle school and early in high school. That may surprise some people, that the guy who went on to be a pilot and astronaut and get a master's degree in aeronautical engineering got bad grades when he was a teenager. But the truth is I really struggled at times because like a lot of kids, I wasn’t motivated. Ultimately, I was inspired by watching my mom become the first female police officer in my hometown, and saw the power of having a goal, and a plan, and working hard at it. So, I set a goal of my own, to become the first person to walk on the planet Mars, and I started studying harder and getting better grades. While I didn’t make it to Mars, I did fly into space four times and commanded the Space Shuttle, and it was setting that bar for myself that gave me the motivation I needed to put in the work. And that education laid the foundation for me to serve our country in a number of ways.

Private industry develops technology at a faster rate than government. In your role on the Senate Armed Services Committee, how do you and your colleagues work to rapidly equip our warfighters with the best and most relevant technologies? How can the DOD work more efficiently with private industry to develop relevant technology for our warfighters? 

It’s true that private industry oftentimes moves and innovates faster than the federal bureaucracy, and there are a lot of great ideas coming from the private sector and our universities. It’s critical that we leverage this if we want to come out on top. There is no country in the world better at innovating than the United States when we work together. My home state of Arizona is leading on this front. Our universities are driving innovation in critical fields from advanced semiconductors and hypersonics to quantum computing and applying advanced data analytics to military challenges like managing complex supply chains and improving operational planning. And they're working side-by-side with our military as they do this. These ties can help us accelerate our defense research programs. We need to foster them, and we need to ensure that we are attracting and retaining talented personnel and investing in the testing infrastructure that makes all this progress possible.

One such effort is the Mission Accelerator Center, or MAC, national network that I worked to create and fund last year in the defense appropriations bill, which focuses on establishing physical colocation spaces near military installations to match the capabilities in a given region with DOD needs to solve problems and ensure the solutions and products fit the mission. We had the Under Secretary for Research & Engineering come out to Arizona on this and have received great support on this game-changing approach to innovation. By interconnecting entrepreneurs, venture capital, academia, and local and federal partners, this will create spaces for DOD to partner directly with innovators, working side-by-side to rapidly advance solutions in a way that also brings local economic development.

How can NPS play a key role in the innovation and innovation adoption process?

The institutions that educate and train our young people also have a role to play in fostering this collaborative mindset, including by seeing where innovations match mission needs or offer a solution that can be integrated with our military. It’s essential to our national security that we continue to build out our STEM ecosystems to ensure that we’re connecting those dots.

How do you see the role of private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin in shaping the space industry and the future of space exploration?

Commercial spaceflight is a growing industry that’s pushing the envelope, creating great paying jobs, and advancing American leadership in space. I say this as someone who, like many others at NASA at the time, had some healthy skepticism about relying more on private partners for space travel. Some of the advances are truly stunning. The cost to launch a payload into orbit is now just a fraction of what it was two decades ago. And the fact that remote sensing and imaging capabilities have advanced so far that all of us can study the developments of a war in Europe from our laptop screen is a testament to American innovation. As we look forward to the challenges we’ll face in the years ahead – the commercial space sector is critical to the future of the U.S. economy and American leadership abroad. Without the commercial space sector, we wouldn’t be able to get our national security payloads into orbit. Without the commercial space sector, entire sectors of the American economy – from telecom to global shipping and navigation – wouldn’t be globally competitive. And without the commercial space sector, we won’t be able to fulfill our ambitions of sending the first American woman and first person of color to the Moon, nor will we be able to maintain a continuous human presence in space after the International Space Station is de-orbited.

The Naval Postgraduate School has R&D relationships with a variety of industry and academic partners developing tech across the spectrum of need. What is the value of these relationships for NPS students and faculty as we think about deterring, and if need be, defeating current and future threats?

It’s important to expose our future leaders to the variety of skills, experiences and opportunities that exist across sectors and institutions. There is nothing worse than getting stuck in a silo. Military leaders need to understand the various places innovation is happening, what the barriers are to development and testing, and how to navigate or, better yet, improve these processes. Technology is changing at an unprecedented pace, and we need to equip our leaders with the skills to navigate this new reality. Our adversaries are leveraging all sectors of society to create the new technologies that will be used in conflicts of the future. Americans choose to work and innovate together, and that’s how we’ll win.

 What are some of the most pressing national security issues facing our country today and what steps can be taken to address them?

The most immediate tactical challenge we face is Russia’s war in Ukraine, and our greatest strategic challenge is China. The Ukrainians have shown tremendous courage and effectiveness over the past year as they defend their country. It’s critical that Putin loses this war. Not only will we always support our partners, but we also know that if Putin is successful in Ukraine, he won’t stop there, and that increases the direct threats to our economy and national security. I’ve worked through the Senate Armed Services Committee to get Ukraine more of the weapons that are proving most effective on the battlefield and am speaking to our military leaders as we continuously assess what Ukraine needs. The United States must continue leading our allies in support of Ukraine. When it comes to China, we need to work with our allies and partners around the world to curb China’s attempts to expand its influence, including in the Middle East, Africa, and South America. And we need to continue advancing the research and development of technologies to maintain our competitive edge over the Chinese military.


As a member of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, you focus on making sure the U.S. has the research and technology needed to outcompete our adversaries like China. How do you see this research and technology improving our national security?

The best way we can prevent a war with China is to convince them that they wouldn’t win it. To date, our technological superiority has been enough to maintain our advantage. But we now face an immense threat to that technological superiority. China has been making significant advancements in cutting-edge technologies like microelectronics and hypersonics as it seeks to erode our military and economic advantages.

They do so through not only dual-use investments but also through corporate coercion, espionage, and connections between government and industry that wouldn't be conceivable in any democratic country. That’s why we must take the same strategic approach we have taken with the CHIPS Act — bringing supply chains home, restoring our leadership in research and development, and coordinating innovation across private sector and government — across other technologies including artificial intelligence, autonomy, microelectronics, 5G technologies, and hypersonics.

By maintaining our competitive edge over China in these and other more conventional areas like land, sea, and air power, we can strengthen deterrence by continuing to dispel any doubt about our ability to prevail in a head-to-head conflict with China.

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