WALNUT CREEK -- The Lesher Center for the Arts' ninth "Newsmakers" Speaker Series soared into orbit on Tuesday with Captain Mark Kelly, the retired American astronaut, Space Shuttle Endeavor commander, best-selling author and husband of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
In a pre-show interview minutes before delivering a rollicking 60-minute testimony to a lifetime of get-your-hands-dirty hard work, Kelly was like the aircraft he has flown.
Through 375 aircraft landings, 39 combat missions, more than 50 days in space and the horrific assassination attempt on his wife on Jan. 8, 2011, his never-give-up spirit has remained impervious to life's g-forces.
"Especially in the beginning, I was just being focused," he said, describing how he emerged from a surreal, mental fog after receiving the call telling him his wife had been shot in the head.
At the hospital, he used the practical, ask-questions approach that had served him well. He was guided by words posted in a NASA decision-making room: "None of us is as dumb as all of us."
"She had been shot through the middle of the left side of her forehead, but they had to operate on the right orbital area. The day of the surgery, they change their minds about what they were going to do," he said, his eyes widening in disbelief at the recollection. Kelly skirted "group think" by asking the most junior resident in the ICU her opinion first.
"I didn't even know where things were
During his public comments to a nearly sold out Hoffman Theatre audience, Kelly said he learned what "primary caregiver" really meant.
"The first person I would have gone to for these decisions was Gabby," he said. "The second was my brother, but he was commanding the space station and wasn't even on the planet."
Kelly's twin brother Scott is also an astronaut and Space Shuttle commander.
Growing up as the children of "a tough, New Jersey Irish cop" father and a mother who was a secretary-turned-police-officer, the Kelly boys saw their parents give daily demonstrations of perseverance.
"For a woman to become a cop in 1970's New Jersey was ... " Kelly began, leaving the sentence open-ended before describing how his 4-foot, 3-inch mother scaled a 7-foot, 4-inch wall in 4.5 seconds, besting the police department's 9-second requirement and earning her a badge.
Hard work arose repeatedly as a theme. From his arrival in 1986 at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola with what he called "the cheesy music from the movie Top Gun" playing on his radio and a plan to walk on Mars, through a career choice with surprising challenges -- "I found out I wasn't a particularly good pilot," he confessed easily -- to the arduous journey of recovery he is sharing with Giffords, Kelly has followed a mantra: "Deny the acceptance of failure."
"How good you are at the beginning of something is no predictor of how good you can become," he told the audience.
After the shooting, Kelly said the thought of caring for Giffords -- "a woman who spoke Spanish, rode a motorcycle, became a member of Congress and seemed like 10 women at once" but now required unfathomable patience and support -- was overwhelming.
Giffords suffers from aphasia, a debilitating, isolating communication impairment typically caused by a stroke. The gunshot wound left her with intact intelligence, but difficulty in speaking. Aphasia can also impact the ability to read, write or comprehend language.
The evening's non-profit partner, Oakland-based Aphasia Center of California, provides pioneering therapy for people with Aphasia through a community-centered approach.
"A lot of people get isolated, but Gabby doesn't have that problem," Kelly said, explaining why she had not attended similar clinics in Tucson and Houston. "She's always giving talks, meeting people, very public. She's had a community, but a lot of people with aphasia don't."
Audience questions followed Kelly's reading of a note from Giffords, which advised the East Bay audience to "be passionate, be courageous, be strong, and be your best."
Kelly said sitting between John Glenn and Neil Armstrong at a dinner last year was a highlight of his career.
Alternatively, packing his wife's suitcase for a recent business trip was "perhaps the most dangerous thing I've ever done in my life," he joked.
Electing moderates who are willing to work for bi-partisan positions is the goal of "Gabby PAC," the political action committee he and Giffords had just announced on Twitter. The future of NASA, he predicted, lay in collaborative partnerships with private companies like Southern California's Space X.
And his favorite planet? The one he described as a big blue marble, floating in a black sky: Earth.
Setting aside any political aspirations he might have, Kelly left the audience with one promise -- that the woman whose strong, non-vindictive attitude shines like a missile on his radar will someday return, in some form, to public service.