America’s Astronauts: Profiles in Character
Some of our greatest heroes are above us in many ways. A down-to-earth comparison may be even more inspiring. Tweet
Up close, Neil Armstrong was every bit as inspiring as when I devoured everything I could read about him back in junior high.
He always made clear his landing on the moon was a national team effort. He accepted the credit that was his, not that which belonged to others.
Astronaut autobiography is a historical genre in its own right — there are forty-plus on my bookshelves, and counting.
Scott Kelly’s book, 'Endurance,' is the best to date from the current generation of astronauts.
There’s a school of thought that says you should never meet your childhood hero. Your hero is just as human as you, goes this theory, and seen up close his human flaws are bound to disappoint.
Maybe for some, but not for me. Neil Armstrong was every bit as inspiring up close as he was when I devoured everything I could read about him, back when I was in junior high and he was putting the first footprints on the moon.
My chance to meet him came when I saw he’d be a guest lecturer on a cruise to Antarctica. Was it worth the half year’s pay it would cost me to be on that ship with him? I didn’t question that for a second.
The first thing I observed about my hero: He believed in value given for value received.
Our first night aboard ship, Armstrong gave his first lecture. It wasn’t about his experiences as an astronaut; it was about the scientists who came to Antarctica and other remote locations to observe a rare transit of Venus across the sun, in order to calculate the distance from Earth to the sun. So that was the first thing I observed about my hero: he wasn’t a freeloader. He could have earned his all-expenses-paid vacation to a very expensive place just by standing up and talking off the top of his head about his amazing, historic life experiences. Instead he invested his time in a lecture as carefully researched and prepared as any speaker with a paycheck to earn. He believed in value given for value received.
Neil (we were all on a first-name basis on this cruise, fellow explorers of Earth) wore his fame gracefully, no false humility, no sense of self-importance. When anyone went fanboy on him, as did the director of one of the research bases we visited, he pretended not to notice. When talking about his experiences, he always made clear his landing on the moon was a national team effort, backed by tens of thousands; he accepted the credit that was his, not that which belonged to others. He gave up signing autographs when he found that some people were asking for them just to sell.
Armstrong never wrote an autobiography, which is a shame. Astronaut autobiography is a historical genre in its own right — there are forty-plus on my bookshelves, and counting — and almost every other astronaut who flew to the moon wrote one. Astronauts were of course chosen for their flying skills, and not all of these feature inspired writing. Yet to one degree or other all are inspiring, for every one of these men was a participant in the greatest adventure of our age.
Who are among the best?
Even as their accomplishments enriched the nation, their stories changed lives.
While Buzz Aldrin, Neil’s co-pilot, made three stabs at it, the book you want to read about that historic flight is Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins, the only member of the Apollo 11 crew who didn’t walk on the moon; he stayed in orbit tending the ship that would bring the moonwalkers home. The book he wrote is deeply insightful about his own life and experience, and in describing the remarkable men around him; Collins himself rightly said that he went to the moon as a pilot, and came home a poet.
Also highly recommended: Gene Cernan’s Last Man on the Moon and, to see what integrity and finding joy in life look like, Al Worden’s Falling to Earth. In James Lovell’s Lost Moon, adapted by Ron Howard into the film Apollo 13, the commander of that ill-fated craft tells the gripping story of death cheated with the help of a determined team back on Earth.
The astronauts of that era remain profoundly worthy of our gratitude and admiration. They were, quite literally, one in a million, and their achievements frequently came at a personal price: well more than half divorced.
Yet even as their accomplishments enriched the nation, their stories changed lives.
God knows where Scott Kelly might have ended up had he not picked up The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s story of the Mercury astronauts. Kelly was a young man adrift, failing college, but in the book’s pages he found a future he could aspire to. The Mercury astronauts had all been test pilots, and the best of those were from the Navy. Eleven years later Kelly was a Navy pilot. Three years after that, he was chosen as an astronaut. Imagine how surprised Wolfe must have been, three years after that, to get a telephone call of thanks from Kelly, in orbit on the International Space Station.
Kelly’s own book, Endurance, is the best to date from the current generation of astronauts. It will, no doubt, do what Wolfe did for Kelly in the life of some future explorer out around the moons of Jupiter.
During those three weeks I spent with Neil in Antarctica, there was no hint he had only a few years of life left before him. At 79, he could easily out-hike me, a middle-aged man who was 12 years old when he made those historic footprints. He was cheerful, and gracious, and comfortable. Everyone who had the privilege of meeting him would agree that he died much too young.
I miss not having his book on my bookshelf. Nonetheless, among the invaluable lessons he conveyed in our fleeting acquaintance was this: Ignore the advice of those who tell you meeting your heroes will disappoint. You may find, as I did, that they aren’t as you thought they’d be. They are even greater.