Today, that criticism can feel downright quaint. Political experience is not necessary to win office, even the highest office in the land, and in fact, when the go-to message is to change how Washington works, it may help to have an identity separate from politics, and offer a perspective from well beyond the Beltway—like some 260 miles above Earth. “When you’re up in space looking down at the round blue ball we call Earth,” Kelly tweeted in September, “it becomes pretty clear that we’re all in this together. And that’s how politics should be: working together to solve problems and improve people’s lives.” (Kelly’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)
Sometimes playing the astronaut card is seen as such a leg up that a candidate’s opponents try to undercut it. Jose Hernandez, a retired NASA astronaut, ran for a House seat in California in 2012, at former President Barack Obama’s urging. During the primary, a Republican-aligned law firm filed a suit challenging Hernandez’s job description on the ballot, arguing that he shouldn’t be characterized as an astronaut, because that was no longer one of his “principal professions.” Hernandez believed that the lawsuit was an attempt to strip the Democrat of the positive associations of astronauts. “Me being an astronaut, a.k.a. American hero, contradicted their negative stereotyping of me in the race,” Hernandez, who lost the race to Jeff Denham, told me. “They didn’t want the 62-year-old grandma who goes to the booth, doesn’t know who they’re voting for—they see ‘Jeff Denham, farmer’ and ‘Jose Hernandez, astronaut’ … because of the tendency of the grandma to say, ‘Oh, he must be okay, because he’s an astronaut.’”
Even after Glenn paved the way, astronaut politicians have sometimes seen their job used against them. “A number of the astronauts were criticized for not being attuned to local issues,” Teasel Muir-Harmony, a historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, says. After Jack Schmitt, an Apollo astronaut, arrived on Capitol Hill as a senator from New Mexico in 1977, his fellow lawmakers nicknamed him “Moonrock,” for both the perception that he was out of touch with Americans and his abrasive personality. During Schmitt’s reelection campaign, which he lost, his Democratic opponent released a devastating ad asking voters, “What on Earth has he done for you lately?” Muir-Harmony told me that similar criticisms were levied against Jack Lousma, who ran for Senate in Michigan as a Republican in 1984 and lost. But perhaps what dinged his campaign most was the attack ad that aired in the heart of America’s auto industry, featuring a clip of Lousma saying he owned a Toyota. (In fact, he said, it was his son’s car.)
Moon jokes and car gaffes aside, astronauts are still revered, and most people would likely jump at the chance to experience their world—even politicians. In 1986, Bill Nelson, then a representative from Florida, flew to space in a rare case of the politician turned astronaut. He took off in January 1986, when the space shuttles were making so many trips into orbit that NASA started inviting non-astronauts along, an exciting reality that was shattered later that month by the Challenger disaster. The view of Earth from orbit—a delicate blue marble suspended in darkness, without a state line or national border in sight beneath its wispy clouds—stayed with Nelson. “That impression has informed a great deal of my public service,” Nelson told me. Nelson, who went to space while serving in the House, spent 18 years in the Senate—and he touted his spaceflight experience in every reelection campaign.