I'm far too young to remember back to 1961 when Kennedy told the nation that by the decade's end, we would be on the moon. And I wasn't around to stay up late on that night in July 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong take that one giant leap for mankind. Of course, I've always thought the idea of space was pretty incredible -- in a Star Trekky (and by default Reading Rainbowy), "The Next Frontier" kind of way. But it's always been just that - an idea. It wasn't tangible or applicable to my life, save visiting the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center as a kid. Oh, and once I ate freeze-dried ice cream like an astronaut.
But last week, it became pretty darn tangible. I got to listen to Apollo 16 astronaut Captain Charlie Duke tell stories for over two hours – and everyone listening was mesmerized. Charlie is the youngest of the 12 Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon. He’s a great storyteller with an incredible memory. I felt like I'd been transported back to the 60’s. You could sense the energy of the Apollo astronauts as they prepared - and then actually flew - to the moon. TO THE MOON. Think about that for a hot second. For however many thousands of years of human existence, no one had done anything quite that insane. Kitty Hawk took its first flight of 120 feet in 1903. Less than 60 years later, humans decided that we were capable of flying the 239,000 miles out of the earth's atmosphere and over to the moon. Nutty, really.
So here are a few lessons from an astronaut named Charlie:
Sometimes you gotta go with it.
Apollo 11 was this first manned mission to the moon. It was also only the second time the Apollo spacecraft had been launched into space. The first time, it had hopped out of the earth's atmosphere for a bit. This time, it was headed to the moon with three souls on board. This was risky business. A huge range crisis scenarios were rehearsed and re-rehearsed prior to takeoff -- but even so, there were many unknowns.
Charlie served as CAPCOM for the landing phase of Apollo 11 (he was the person in Houston who is in direct contact with the crew). Just before landing, Apollo 11 almost ran out of fuel. The lunar module had 25 seconds of fuel left when Neil finally announced, "The Eagle has landed." A flustered Charlie responded with, "Roger, Twank... Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot!"
Always carry with you a little bit of faith and a big roll of electrical tape.
On every Apollo mission, there were two rolls of duct tape on the spacecraft. Charlie said that he didn't really know why they bothered to put duct tape on board.
Then Apollo 13 happened, and if you've seen the movie, you know what went down - poisonous CO2 gas was leaking into the spacecraft. The astronauts used duct tape to create a makeshift air filter that allowed them to keep breathing.
Sister Mary Patrick would have been proud.
When you're in space, you don't see stars.
Charlie told us that en route between the earth and the moon, the sun is so bright that it mutes out all other stars. So all you see is a sea of darkness. Crazy, right?!
Sometimes you have to learn kind of pointless stuff.
In preparing for missions to the moon, the Apollo astronauts had to earn the equivalent of a Master’s in geology so they would know how to handle lunar rocks. Charlie said that once he got to the moon, all he did was essentially “pick up one of every color.” He never used much of his geology knowledge -- but just like with that awful Calculus 2 class or the English degree your dad swore would get you nowhere or the years and years of life you spent in med school -- so often, learning can be the means to an end.
Technology has come a crazy long way.
A 16-Gig iPhone has 200,000 times the memory of the Apollo spacecraft.
Love what you do.
Charlie Duke trained for two years for the Apollo 16 mission, and logged over 2,000 hours of simulator time. He spent 11 days in space.
The paycheck for his entire trip was a whopping $13.75.
There are a whole lot of 20-something $50K millionaires out there chasing paper over passions. And this man got paid almost nothing, but he got to do something extraordinary and adventurous, something he was excited to wake up every morning and get to do. It may take a little luck and a lot of hard work, but if you want to do some crazy thing that you love - you can do that. The paycheck helps, but it's not all about the paycheck.
There you go, folks. Astronauts are pretty baller.