Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly are a “power couple.” Giffords was a member of Congress representing Arizona who was very nearly assassinated in a brutal attack that left six others dead early in 2011, and her husband was a NASA astronaut. Both have had a lot to say about the direction of space exploration in the United States, Giffords from her place on the House Science Committee and Kelly through his place as a respected participant in the program.
Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope is a book by Giffords and Kelly on their experiences as a couple, as advocates for their priorities in space, and as those who suffered an outrageous injustice at the hands of a madman with firearms far beyond any ever needed for hunting or home defense. The book especially focuses on the events of January 8, 2011, when Giffords was shot in the back of the head by an assailant while meeting with constituents at a Tucson super market. It also details the long road to Gifford’s remarkable recovery from the shooting that nearly took her life.
Written primarily from the perspective of Mark Kelly, Gabby takes a thematic approach rather than one that is chronological. He discusses how the couple met, their relationship before the shooting, and a range of issues concerning her political career, his astronaut career, and his mission to the International Space Station in the wake of Gabby’s recuperation and recovery from the attempted assassination.
This is an useful book in many ways. For those interested in human spaceflight, the most interesting material may well be about Kelly’s career as an astronaut. This will be especially true for the internal controversies over whether or not he would be allowed to fly on STS-134, which he had been assigned to command, following Gabby Giffords’ shooting. “NASA officials weren’t sure they even wanted to keep me on the job,” he confessed. Concerns about his psychological state as his wife fought for her life in hospital prompted many at NASA to recommend his replacement. Mike Kelly’s twin brother, Scott, and an astronaut in his own right, argued the case for his brother. “You’re trained to put aside personal issues, to focus on your mission,” so NASA should have no worries about his ability to persevere. Some at NASA also worried about the public’s perception of Kelly continuing with STS-134 when his wife lay critically ill for political reasons. Would it seem that the mission came ahead of his husbandly responsibilities? Kelly insisted that Gabby would have insisted that he fly the mission regardless of anything else.
Kelly, of course, flew the mission and it went well. Gabby was getting better every day, and she would eventually demonstrate a remarkable physical recovery. She, of course, lost an eye in the shooting, as well as other capabilities, but her ability to function as she does more than a year after the shooting remains an inspirational story. After the STS-134 mission Mark Kelly announced he was retiring from NASA, and Gabby Giffords has announced she would not continue to serve in Congress.
Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope is an interesting dual autobiography, actually more of an autobiography for Kelly than for Giffords, and it offers an interesting perspective on NASA, the Space Shuttle program, and the Astronaut Office. Much of what Kelly has to say about these is critical. He viewed the Astronaut Office as dysfunctional and petty. The Space Shuttle Program was shutting down and limping with layoffs, retirements, and other departures. No decisions were final in terms of a way forward for human spaceflight and this was troubling to Kelly. He states in several places that only more effective leadership will resolve these issues. Such is still the case in 2013.