A-10 Pilot vs. Astronaut: Combat Aviators Clash Over Arizona Senate Seat

Former Astronaut Mark Kelly and Lt. Col. Martha McSally.
Former Astronaut Mark Kelly (left) at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, Jan.19, 2015, and Lt. Col. Martha McSally with her A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft on Jan. 29, 2006. (Photos: NASA/U.S. Air Force)

Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally just scored an endorsement from famed U.S. astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Mark Kelly, her Democratic challenger and a former astronaut himself, has a Marine veteran lawmaker who's got his back.

The two veterans -- both former combat aviators -- may have a lot of common ground in military experience, but in a tight Senate race, they've been openly clashing with one another -- especially in the final days leading up to a Nov. 3 special election.

"Why are these hero astronauts backing me over their counterpart Mark Kelly? Because they know I'm fighting for our freedoms, our safety and security," McSally wrote on Twitter of Aldrin's endorsement, pointing out that some of Kelly's own NASA tribe oppose him.

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Kelly, a retired U.S. Navy captain who flew 39 combat missions during Operation Desert Storm, is even better known for his work as a NASA astronaut, flying four missions on the space shuttle, first as a pilot then as a commander.

"So much is at stake right now," McSally said Tuesday. Former astronauts Tom Stafford, Charlie Duke and Jack Lousma have also praised McSally, who earlier secured a ringing endorsement from President Donald Trump.

"We must hold this seat, the Senate, and save the country," she said in a separate tweet Saturday. "It's a dog fight, and as we fighter pilots say: Fight's On!"

Kelly had his own themed Twitter rejoinder.

"When you're orbiting the Earth at over 17,500 miles per hour and you've got a problem, there's no room for politics -- you just work together to solve it," he tweeted just a few hours later.

McSally lost her 2018 Senate election bid but was appointed to the seat following the resignation of Sen. Jon Kyl. In military circles, she is best known for her fierce support of the beloved A-10 Warthog, and was the first female Air Force pilot to fly in combat in the aircraft in 1995. She retired as a colonel in 2010 after serving for 22 years, but not without struggle: McSally first revealed last year that she had been raped as a junior officer. Even before the revelation, she's petitioned the Pentagon for years to improve existing processes to address sexual assault, among other changes to accountability to protect troops.

A member of the Senate Armed Services committee, McSally has voted to prevent proposed cuts to the A-10 fleet, for sexual military assault reform, among other issues.

Like McSally, Kelly highlights his military background in campaigning. And while Kelly hasn't disclosed his views on matters like aircraft fleet cuts or military sexual assault policies so far, he has openly opposed the creation of the United States Space Force, and described what he plans to accomplish for the veteran community.

Last week, Kelly released an ad featuring Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a Marine veteran, who praised his combat service.

"As a veteran, he knows the importance of unity, compromise, and hard work," Gallego says in the Spanish-language ad, the fourth Spanish ad for Kelly as he attempts to secure the Latino vote across the state.

"He understands the sacrifices that were made so that this country could grow," Gallego says, according to The Hill.

In a piece titled "Arizona veterans deserve better," published on Medium this week, Kelly called for more help for veterans returning from war and transitioning into civilian life.

"Things have only gotten worse in the wake of this pandemic," Kelly said. "One of the most important things we can do for veterans is to get them resources and guidance that will help them find success."

Kelly also made a plea for improved healthcare and shortened wait times at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics.

"In the Navy, when we faced problems, we didn't sit and argue about politics -- we worked as a team to get the job done," he wrote. "We need leaders who can put politics aside and work together to solve these problems for our veterans. In the Senate, I'll fight to make sure the government keeps its promises to veterans and I'll honor their service by continuing our pledge."

The latest polls are in favor of Kelly, but the margin is narrow: prediction website 538 calls for a tight win, but with only 77% confidence.

A request for further comment from both candidates did not receive an immediate response.

-- Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: Martha McSally Didn't Want to Be A Fighter Pilot -- Until She Was Told No

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