Mark Kelly Isn't the Only Senator Who's Been to Space

By: David Warmflash, M.D.  | 

mark kelly
Vice President Mike Pence swears in retired astronaut Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) into the U.S. Senate at the U.S. Capitol Dec. 2, 2020, while Kelly's wife, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, stands by in support. Graeme Jennings-Pool/Getty Images

On Dec. 2, 2020. retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly was sworn in as a Democratic Senator of Arizona, ascending no longer into space, but to the same seat once held by the late Republican Sen. John McCain. Like McCain, Kelly is a former Navy pilot.

But Kelly has exceeded his Arizonian senatorial predecessors by many times in altitude. He and his twin brother, retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly who spent a record 340 consecutive days in space, took part in NASA's landmark DNA "Twin Study" to help understand how the human body adapts to long stays in space. And Mark Kelly's not the first astronaut to land into the upper chamber on Capitol Hill.

There have been four others whose careers have taken them from space to senate (or senate to space). Each has a fascinating history. Let's take a look at their paths and how they got there.


John Glenn

Other than Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, John Glenn is arguably the most famous name in NASA history. Some might find this ironic, considering, he flew into space just once, orbiting Earth just three times on a flight that lasted less than five hours in 1962. This flight made Glenn a national hero, however, because it made him the first American to orbit Earth at all.

Glenn remained part of NASA for five years after his famous orbital flight, despite being the oldest astronaut in the corps. He was elected to the Senate in 1974 and represented Ohio for 25 years as a Democrat. He served as chairman of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, and as a member of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees. Glenn was considered one of the Senate's leading experts on technical and scientific matters.

During his last term as a senator, Glenn served on the Special Committee on Aging. Apropos to this work — and that biological changes from longtime exposure to spaceflight mimic biological changes associated with aging — Glenn was selected to return to space on a nine-day mission on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. At the age of 77, he was the oldest person to travel in space.

John Glenn
The late U.S. Senator John Glenn was the first NASA astronaut to orbit Earth and later became the oldest civilian in space.


Harrison "Jack" Schmitt

Before joining NASA, Harrison "Jack" Schmitt worked for the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Center at Flagstaff, Arizona, as project chief for lunar field geological methods. He participated in photo and telescopic mapping of the moon, and trained NASA astronauts on their geological field trips. But in 1965, NASA selected him to be a scientist-astronaut.

Schmitt piloted the Apollo 17 mission — the last manned Apollo mission the U.S. flew to the moon, Dec. 6, 1972. Apollo 17 turned out to be the most scientifically productive lunar mission. Although the Apollo lunar program ended with Schmitt's return to Earth Dec. 19, 1972, he remained with NASA until 1975, studying the lunar samples he and other Apollo astronauts collected.

In 1974, Schmitt was appointed NASA assistant administrator for energy programs, a position he held until August 1975, when he resigned to run for Senate in his home state of New Mexico. He was elected Nov. 2, 1976. He served from 1977 to 1983, and sat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee; and the Select Committee on Ethics. He was the ranking Republican member of the Ethics Committee; the Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee of Commerce; and the Consumer Subcommittee of Banking. To this day, Schmitt is the only natural scientist to serve in the U.S. Senate since Thomas Jefferson presided over it.

Harrison Schmitt
Scientist-astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, Apollo 17 lunar module pilot, is seen here using an adjustable sampling scoop to retrieve lunar samples during the second Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA).
Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan/NASA


Edwin "Jake" Garn

The next U.S. senator got his spaceflight experience in a very different way than our first two. He technically went from the Senate to space. Edwin "Jake" Garn represented the state of Utah as a Republican in the Senate from January 1975 until January 1993. During his tenure, he served as chairman of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, and on several subcommittees: Housing and Urban Affairs; Financial Institutions; and International Finance and Monetary Policy. He also was a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and four Appropriations subcommittees, including Energy and Water Resources; Defense; Military Construction; and Interior.

But it was Garn's experience as a naval pilot that made him an obvious choice to work as a payload specialist on the space shuttle Discovery mission in 1985 as part of NASA's program to send civilians into space. Garn had already been a pilot in the United States navy from 1956 to 1960, and flew supply missions to Vietnam with the Utah Air National Guard. By the time he retired as a full colonel in April 1979, he'd flown more than 10,000 hours in military and private civilian aircraft. Garn is the only pilot in aviation history to have wings from the Navy, Air Force and NASA and is the first member of Congress to fly in space.

Jake Garn
Crewman Senator Jake Garn is seen here during a parabolic or zero-gravity flight. The simulation makes some passengers nauseous, which inspired the nickname "Vomit Comet."


William "Bill" Nelson

Our last senator, William "Bill" Nelson, also flew aboard a space shuttle in January 1986 as part of the same NASA civilian program. Nelson's mission lasted one week on the shuttle Columbia where he also worked as a payload specialist, becoming the second member of Congress — and first member of the House — to fly into space. At the time he was a 44-year-old Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives serving Florida.

Before that, Nelson was in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1965 to 1971, where he served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, earning the rank of captain. Afterward, he returned to Florida and in 1970 began working as a legislative assistant to Gov. Reubin Askew. In 1972, Nelson was elected to the Florida House of Representatives. By 1978 he was elected to represent Florida as a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives where he served six terms for Florida's 9th and 11th congressional districts. He was elected to U.S. Senate in 2000 and retired in 2019. During his tenure he served on multiple committees, including the Committee on Aging; the Committee on Armed Services; the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation; and the Committee on Finance.

Bill Nelson
U.S. Representative Bill Nelson, STS 61-C payload specialist, prepares to enjoy a freshly peeled grapefruit on the mid-deck of the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Columbia.