Five Ways Apollo Astronauts Can Teach You to Have a Stellar Career
The Apollo astronauts inspired generations of young people across the world, and their influence wasn’t confined to the era in which they flew (1968–1972), it lasts until today. Countless young men and women continue to cite these brave astronauts as an inspiration for their decision to pursue careers in fields as diverse as science, art, exploration, sales, coding, teaching, and countless others. But the example of Apollo astronauts can do more than inspire a person to enter a chosen field; there are nuggets in their stories that can help teach that person to have a stellar career once he or she arrives.
I got to know several Apollo astronauts while researching my book, ROCKET MEN. ROCKET MEN tells the story of Apollo 8, mankind’s historic and daring first mission to the Moon, perhaps the most audacious and risky mission NASA ever ran. By the end of my writing, I felt like I learned more than an astonishing story of space exploration, courage, and American greatness. I felt like I learned a lot about life and how to be excellent in one’s own work. Here are a few of the lessons I hope to hang onto as I make my way through the rest of my professional career.
1. Get serious about your work early in life
Most Apollo astronauts came to NASA from the military, where they’d been among the country’s finest test or fighter pilots. That kind of achievement required near tunnel vision and a singular dedication from the moment they enlisted. It would not have occurred to these men to take a few years off to backpack through Europe after high school, or to move from job to job in order to find themselves. By DNA, it seems, they’d been born to hone in on their targets and to do it with immediacy, before life intervened, a mindset perfect for becoming the first human beings to set out for the Moon — or for excelling at whatever is one’s chosen profession.
2. Get there any way you can
Jim Lovell (Gemini 7, Gemini 12, Apollo 8, and Apollo 13) is among the best known of America’s astronauts. But not everyone knows NASA rejected him when he applied to be part of America’s first group of astronauts. (The reason: Lovell had a bit too much bilirubin, a pigment produced by the liver and found in bile.) His wife, Marilyn, had never seen him so discouraged. Then, something strange happened. Lovell received orders to report to the next phase of astronaut training. He knew the orders had been issued by mistake, but he seized on this chance to get back in, even if by clerical error, and flew to Ohio to report for duty. He took a bunk and nearly got away with it, until legitimate candidate (and future astronaut) Gus Grissom showed up the next morning and apologized for being late. One might have expected NASA to have punished Lovell for his ambition, but they must have admired his moxy; he was invited back to be considered for America’s second group of astronauts, and this time he made it through, extra pigment and all.
3. See setbacks as opportunity
In the summer of 1968, astronaut Bill Anders was training as a lunar module pilot, which meant he’d been picked to be one of the men to walk on the Moon. Suddenly, and for very dramatic reasons, his mission and duties were changed; now, Anders would fly the command module (the craft that orbited the Moon while his two crewmates landed on the lunar surface). In just a single moment, Anders’ dreams of walking on the Moon had all but disappeared (guys who trained to fly the command module didn’t land on the Moon). At first, the disappointment packed a wallop. But then Anders got to thinking: Flying his new mission, Apollo 8, meant that he and his crewmates, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, would be the first human beings ever to leave Earth, and the first to arrive at the Moon. That was like being another Christopher Columbus, and what more could a curious man hope for than that? With a single shift in focus, Anders saw his setback as opportunity. Four months later, he became (by a few centimeters, given his seating position), the first man ever to arrive at the Moon.
4. Forget failures fast
To learn to fly the lunar module that would be used to land on the Moon, a select few astronauts trained in a strange craft known as the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, or LLRV. It was the weirdest ship any of them had ever seen, but it also could simulate flying in one-sixth gravity — equal to that on the Moon. On May 6, 1968, a system failure caused Neil Armstrong to lose control while flying the LLRV. At an altitude of less than 200 feet, the machine pitched sideways and plummeted toward the ground. Armstrong ejected just moments before the craft impacted and burst into flames. Even with a parachute, his descent lasted only ten seconds (see video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcJaYzEbAEk). But perhaps the most shocking part of the incident was that Armstrong was at work behind his desk an hour later — no time off for recovery, no extended prayers of thanks, little contemplation of his mortality — just finishing some paperwork and getting ready to do it all over again. And that was just the kind of person NASA needed to send to the Moon — one who didn’t dwell on failures but only looked forward, even as far as the Moon.
5. Say yes
In August of 1968, Frank Borman was summoned to Houston for a meeting with Deke Slayton, the man at NASA in charge of managing astronaut training and choosing crews for manned space missions. Borman had been training for a low Earth orbital flight as part of the Apollo program’s buildup toward landing a man on the Moon, but Slayton hit Borman with a shocking proposition: drop your current mission and take command of Apollo 8, mankind’s first journey to the Moon. The offer was thrilling but full of incredible risks: Borman and crew would have only four months to train, not the usual 12–18 months; the astronauts would fly the Saturn V rocket, which had never been tested with humans aboard and had experienced near-catastrophic results in just its second and most recent test; NASA still wasn’t near ready for a journey to the Moon; and Apollo 8 would go with no lunar module, which also served as a backup engine, which meant if the spacecraft’s primary engine failed at the Moon, the crew might crash into the lunar surface or be flung off into space for eternity. Borman would have been justified in taking days, if not weeks, to consider such a proposition; yet Slayton needed an answer on the spot. NASA had selected its astronauts, in part, for their DNA-level instinct to push forward, to get the job done no matter what, and Borman didn’t disappoint. On the spot, he accepted command of Apollo 8. The mission launched sixteen weeks later, and on Christmas Eve, 1968, as Apollo 8 orbited the Moon from an altitude of just 69 miles, Borman and his crewmates spoke to nearly one-third of the world’s population, uttering words no one could have imagined just days earlier, and bringing together a nation and a world torn apart by war, assassination, and bitter divides.
For more on the Apollo 8 mission, check out Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon