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The Mission of a Lifetime
Lessons from the Men Who Went to the Moon
By Basil Hero
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In rare in-depth interviews, the twelve remaining lunar explorers, for the first time, talk at length about the real right stuff; the true source of courage, leadership, and the quiet patriotism that it took to risk their lives going to the moon. Hero begins each chapter with key life lessons that readers can gain from these honorable men whom he calls the Eagles. He describes how they mastered their emotions and learned to conquer their fears through techniques that can be used from the classroom to the boardroom.
More importantly their voyages to the Moon led them to the most incredible discovery of all: our home planet and its precious place in the universe. They fear for Earth’s future and offer sensible solutions to its mounting crises and the path to future space exploration.
In The Mission Of A Lifetime, the Eagles share their wisdom and urge us to reframe our view of Earth to theirs: no identifiable nations, borders, or races; just Earthlings working together as a collective civilization.
FINDING THE EAGLES
Space is making a comeback. Cable news networks are once again broadcasting the live countdowns of rocket launches—this time of the privately built rockets of billionaire visionaries such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Their plans for colonizing the moon and Mars are making regular headlines, and a new generation raised on movies like Gravity and The Martian has gotten the bug for space. In 2017, 18,300 people applied to NASA for fourteen available astronaut slots… all of them hopeful that they might, one day, run their gloved fingers over the surface of another world.
How extraordinary to think that with all the technological progress of the last fifty years, no country today has a rocket powerful enough to achieve the six Apollo moon landings that took place between 1969 and 1972. No human has left low earth orbit or kicked up any moon dust since then. That’s a long time. What, I wondered, do the twelve of the remaining twenty-four Apollo astronauts who either orbited or walked on the moon think about all of this—not just about the state of today’s space program and its future but, more intriguingly, the life lessons they learned from humanity’s ultimate road trip of exploration? While their lunar missions have been written about exhaustively, including their autobiographies, those were written years ago and stopped short of probing the more primal questions each of us has wrestled with. It’s possible, I thought, that as they were closing in on their nineties, they might be willing (even keen, perhaps) to offer the kind of life reflections generated by the accumulated wisdom of their emeritus years. Reflections about courage. About conquering one’s fears. About what constitutes a worthwhile personal and professional life. About the latest information on our home planet’s perilous state and their thoughts on the bold plans of innovators like Jeff Bezos to colonize the universe. I decided to make it my mission to hear what they had to say.
The men who went to the moon remain history’s most elite fraternity. Their extraterrestrial view of Earth from the moon changed them and the world. As of this writing, only twelve of the twenty-four lunar voyagers are alive. Time was running out to talk to them. The bigger challenge I faced was how to reach them.
The improbable answer came on the night of October 29, 2014, with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, which mutated into a monster that meteorologists needed a new name to describe. They called it FRANKENSTORM! Lower Manhattan was deluged by a fourteen-foot wall of surging ocean water and went dark. In Connecticut, where I lived, uprooted trees and downed power lines cut the electricity to my Westport home. My immediate concern was for my retired neighbor who moved next door to me the week before. I was unaware that he was one of the nation’s leading space historians. When I knocked on his door to check on him, I could see right away that he needed more than candlelight to safely navigate his living room, so I returned with a few spare storm lanterns. The room lit up to reveal the lair of a writer. The center of Bill’s living room was dominated by an eight-foot-long table covered with multiple rows of neatly labeled manila file folders arrayed against open books loaded with sticky notes. Clipped newspaper articles were scattered near his computer, and bookcases gobbled up the rest of the room. Above his small, round wooden dining table hung a corkboard with a single sheet of bold lettering spelling out WE ARE THE SPACE RACE.
“Are you the same Bill Burrows,” I asked him, “who wrote This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age?” His big smile said yes. My new neighbor was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, former New York Times reporter, retired professor of journalism at NYU, and the author of twelve books (most on space and national security issues).
Bill and I would share our passion for the moon shots as he worked on his newest book, The Asteroid Threat, which was published two years after we met. Bill (now eighty-one) became more than a friend as he began advising me in this undertaking to give readers a prescription for living boldly (and deeper reflection) from the men who went to the moon.
The ex-journalist in me kicked in to start tracking down the men I’ve come to call the Eagles. Bill, of course, was the obvious starting point. But the only contact information he had was for shuttle astronaut Tom Jones (TJ), who wrote Sky Walking and gave a dust jacket testimonial for The Asteroid Threat. But even TJ had no e-mail addresses for the Eagles, which I soon discovered are known only to a select few who essentially serve as their gatekeepers.
So, who are the gatekeepers? I wondered. TJ suggested going to Andy Turnage, the executive director of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), to whom he made an introduction. I knew I had one shot with Andy, and condensed my e-mail to him into a few compelling paragraphs about the theme of the book, and gave him a short list of the Eagles I wanted to interview first (among them Apollo 8’s Bill Anders, who took the celebrated Earthrise photo, which gave humanity its first clear look at Earth from the moon, and ultimately helped launch the environmental movement).
Within the hour, Andy responded to my note. I had passed the first test. He liked what he read, and said he would forward my book proposal to Bill Anders and Charlie Duke, the tenth man to walk on the moon. He did not, however, have contact info for the others I had requested.
My query hit its mark faster than I expected. That same day I received the following response:
Dear Mr. Hero,
I’m Dr. Dydia DeLyser, Archivist and Project Manager for General and Mrs. Anders. As you can see, your message found its way to me. I’d be pleased to learn more about your project and plans. If you’d like to speak by phone rather than email, I’m sure we can set that up.
Dr. DeLyser’s note triggered a deep breath of festive relief. But ahead, I knew, lay the make-or-break part. While Anders was intrigued by my e-mail, he understandably wanted his gatekeeper to start vetting me. Anders, my research showed, is a versatile maverick, a bit of a rebel with a scintillating intelligence, and the only astronaut to figure out how to beat one of NASA’s intelligence tests. He has a gift for reducing complex issues to their binary essence and has little tolerance for anything less than excellence. Warren Buffett told me that “every move Bill Anders made was smart” when he was CEO of General Dynamics, and it was the reason he gave Anders his board proxy in what is considered one of the great corporate turnarounds in modern business history.
Anders deals in facts and due diligence. Dr. DeLyser’s job was to find out if I was worth talking to. My job was to convince her that I was. Google searches can give you the facts of a person but rarely a sense of who they are. Before getting on the phone with Dr. DeLyser, I wanted to know more about her. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at California State University, Fullerton. She is not your typical academic. As I read through her faculty bio section, it was this eye-catching notation, under her list of research interests, that told me I was dealing with a creative thinker: “How women pilots in the late 1920s and early 1930s used their practices of flying to advance feminism in the post-suffrage era.”
I could see why Anders picked her to organize the history of his life. In a disquieting aside, she recounted the deceptive lengths people have engaged in over the years to get autographs from the Apollo astronauts… including bogus letters from adults pretending to be children dying of cancer, and other sympathy-grabbing devices to get the astronauts’ attention and signatures.
I had no idea how bad it was. Obsessive autograph seekers and stalkers have driven the Eagles (the moon walkers, in particular) to closely guard their home addresses and e-mail information. “People want a piece of them,” Dr. DeLyser told me. Anything to be able to say they shook the hand, or got the autograph, of an astronaut who went to the moon.
Dr. DeLyser liked the fresh approach I was taking with the Eagles, and asked for my résumé, along with a two-page summary of the book to present to General Anders. I sent it off and hoped I would clear the final hurdle.
To my everlasting gratitude, Anders gave me the opportunity to interview him and invited me to his elegant home overlooking Burrows Bay in Anacortes, Washington. I have interviewed presidents and many other powerful figures at length, but I have never prepared more thoroughly than I did for Anders. When I arrived at the gate, he greeted me in his gardening clothes and semi-joked, as we walked to the house, that he’s preparing handicap ramps for the inevitable day when walking will become difficult for him and his wife.
Anders, at eighty-five, is nowhere near that point. What struck me first were his blue eyes, which still have the vigor, watchfulness, and intensity of the ex-fighter-pilot in him. In fact, he says, he’s never really gotten out of the cockpit. Like the rest of his lunar brethren who rode the Saturn V, the mightiest rocket ever built, the need for adrenaline-pumping adventure still beats strongly in his octogenarian heart. He sniffs at the idea of playing golf. Not surprisingly, Anders, who is still thin like all the Eagles, says his daily exercise routine is to fly at least one hour a day in one of the vintage World War II planes his wealth has afforded him. Flying keeps him young.
Similar eclectic tastes in history kicked off our conversation, and we moved quickly to the real-time impact his lunar voyage had on his notion of man’s place in the universe, the anatomy of courage, and the existence of God. Fully engaged by our talk, he invited me to dinner with two close friends. But before heading out, he couldn’t resist having a little fun with me. In his study is his prized collection of meteorites and fossils. “You know,” he said, “geologists say you can sometimes tell the origin of a rock by tasting it.” I was sensing a setup.
“Run your tongue over this one,” Anders said, “and see if you can identify it.” I promptly gave it a lick. “You know what it is? Fossilized dinosaur shit.”
We both had an uproarious laugh and a wonderful interview.
There is no greater validation than one lunar astronaut recommending you to another, and that’s what Anders did when he promised to connect me with Frank Borman, his commander on Apollo 8 and his lifelong friend. Good to his word, I got the following witty e-mail from Bill a few days later on Easter Sunday:
The Bunny is bringing you a nice egg this morning. I talked to Frank Borman yesterday and he has agreed to chat with you about your book in Billings, MT. His wife is quite ill and he spends a lot of time with her daily so there will be some comings & goings. You can contact him at the above email or his cell phone.
The same insightful exploration continued with the ninety-one-year-old Borman who, like Bill, still flies his own vintage plane. Borman is as dynamic as ever. In coordinating our interview, he told me he was an early riser and offered to pick me up at my hotel at 8:30 in the morning after finishing his daily workout routine. His day starts at 5:30 a.m. and consists of one hour of weight lifting and treadmill work. From my research of the man, I had a feeling that the West Point graduate, a human dynamo guided by the Academy’s motto: Duty, Honor, Country, might arrive early.
Acting on my hunch, I decided to take an early walk around the hotel grounds. Within five minutes of inhaling Montana’s Big Sky air, I spotted a small SUV pulling into the driveway. A flash of certainty hit me that it was the colonel behind the wheel. He lowered his window, and as I recognized him, the first thing I noticed were his eyes bursting with alertness, the same eyes whose deep space view of the Earth from the moon rewired his brain’s perception of our home planet. He was clearly pleased that I was waiting for him ahead of schedule. We were off to a good start. As we concluded our interview, Frank made this touching admission after talking at length about his wife Susan’s Alzheimer’s: “As you can imagine, I live a pretty lonely life, Basil, and an intellectual conversation is a welcomed diversion, and I really enjoyed it.”
Frank then called Jim Lovell, the third crew member on Apollo 8, who also gave me a revelatory interview. Like Bill and Frank, Jim, who is ninety-one, has the same luminous eyes, which still radiate with the readiness of the majestic symbol that could be found on the mission patches popular with the lunar astronauts: the eagle. With his golden retriever, Toby, sitting at his feet, Jim cited optimism as the most important quality a person can have and says it’s what got him through the Apollo 13 crisis (“Houston, we’ve had a problem”), which was turned into a blockbuster movie. But Jim’s most tantalizing reflection during our conversation pertained to birth and death. It is a singularly original thought, a contemplation that the dean of Yale Divinity School says he’s never heard before and could only have resulted from Jim’s two trips orbiting the moon.
Lovell’s powerful formulation? “We don’t go to heaven when we die, we go to heaven when we’re born.” There are other gems like this from the Eagles, as we’ll discover later in the book.
Sensing that their final resting place in history is just around the corner, the Eagles opened their homes and their hearts in ways that I don’t think would have been possible from their younger selves ten or twenty years ago.
They are intrepid souls whose wisdom has been forged by a voyage and a view of Earth that only they have experienced. “I grew up watching these guys,” says Bezos, who told me in a heartfelt interview that he was directly inspired by the moon landings and believes that the Eagles’ “elder statesmen” status and the “bluntness of age,” as he put it, make their final reflections worth listening to.
“They have a very low tolerance for bullshit. And they’re often very courageous in calling it out,” says former NASA flight surgeon and psychiatrist Dr. Patricia Santy, who has seen (and studied) the psychological profiles of the Eagles.
As an example, some of them call out senators and congressmen who wear the American flag on their lapels, as “false patriots and self-serving jackasses.” They remind us that courage, quiet patriotism, and conquering fear—the real right stuff—all emanate from deeper sources: a commitment to the common good, and belief in something greater than oneself.
They cry out for us to take care of the planet. They urge us to reframe our view of Earth to theirs: no identifiable nations, borders, or races. Just humans, planetary brothers and sisters riding on the Earth together.
Their wish for all of us is to keep pushing the boundaries (as they did) and always, always live life with fierce optimism and faith that, like the moon shot, any goal—no matter the odds—is as achievable as your resolve to see it through.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the moon on July 21, 1969, their colleague Mike Collins, orbiting above them in the command module, worried about one thing: Would the ascent engine on their lunar module, the Eagle, work properly to get them off the lunar surface? “I was a lot more worried about getting them up off the moon,” said Collins, “than I was about getting them down onto the moon. The motor on the lunar module was one motor, and if something went wrong with it, you know, they were dead men, there was no other way for them to leave.”
Although few people knew it, President Richard M. Nixon had the same fear and was quietly dreading the other televised speech he might have to give. When Nixon placed his congratulatory phone call to Neil and Buzz during their two-hour walk on the Sea of Tranquility, he concluded his conversation with them praying “that [they would] return safely to Earth.” There was much more behind the president’s hopeful request for God’s assistance in keeping the two Eagles safe. What Nixon couldn’t let go of was the warning Frank Borman had given his speechwriter, William Safire. It was Borman who first reminded Safire of the possibility of “mishaps” during the first lunar landing and told him that he needed to prepare a contingency speech for Nixon. A contingency speech for what? Safire wondered. Safire, who would later become a celebrated New York Times columnist, recounted his conversation with Borman in 1999 on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I remember when Frank Borman, who was the astronaut who acted as the liaison with the White House, called me up and said, ‘You’re working on this moon shot, you’ll want to consider an alternative posture for the president in the event of mishaps.’” At first, Safire said he couldn’t figure out what Borman was driving at. “And I didn’t get it,” Safire continued, “until he added—and I can hear him now—‘like what to do for the widows.’”
Then it sank in. Safire would have to prepare a eulogy, which, if ever delivered, would have turned Armstrong’s immortal “one giant leap for mankind” into a Shakespearean tragedy that would haunt the world in perpetuity. Safire went to the Oval Office and handed the contingency speech to Nixon just in case the two Eagles were left to a slow public death. It read:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
Nixon’s undelivered memorial serves as a powerful reminder today of the range and complexity of the risks the twenty-four Eagles faced with each of their nine voyages to the moon. “Death was always right outside our window,” said Alan Bean, who was the fourth Apollo astronaut to walk there. He also feared the ascent engine might not start, which his commander Pete Conrad suspected was worrying him. “Pete looks over at me and he says, ‘You’re awful quiet over there, Al.’ I said yeah. He said, ‘Are you wondering if this thing is going to start?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, probably.’ He says, ‘Me too, but if it doesn’t, we’ll be the first permanent monument to the space program on the moon.’”
“The unknowns were rampant,” said Neil Armstrong, who gave himself only a fifty-fifty chance of making a successful landing. “The systems in this mode had only been tested on Earth and never in the real environment. There were just a thousand things to worry about in the final descent. It was hardest for the systems, and it was hardest for the crew. It was the thing I most worried about because it was so difficult.”
What was it in the backgrounds of the Eagles that allowed them to risk their lives in space, where no one had ventured before?
How did they conquer fear?
Where did their leadership skills and humility come from?
What was it about their shared experience that made them all see Earth as the Garden of Eden waiting to be rediscovered?
That’s what is explored here with the remaining moon voyagers, who reflect on fifty years of lunar hindsight, what it has taught them and can teach us. None of these men asked for fame. They don’t see themselves as heroes. They are, like the mythic heroes of antiquity, flawed—some more than others, and they humbly admit it. But they remain the only humans to have seen Earth from the moon, and from that mystical perch their minds were rebooted with an altered view of happiness, and the value of time, and above all, a newfound esteem for our home planet.
“Everyone who went to the moon came back a changed person,” said NASA flight controller John Aaron, who was one of the people celebrated in the Oscar-winning movie Apollo 13 for his critical role in getting the crippled spacecraft and its depleted crew home safely. “It was an experience that somehow caused them to reframe, and you could tell they had some kind of emotional, or religious experience as a result of it.”
While some of the Eagles talked privately of a great awakening after their flights, their biographies and chronicles of the space age focused on the ordeals of spaceflight, its risks and technical intricacies—not the transcendental impact of lunar exploration.
By nature, the men of Apollo, mostly trained as test pilots, were not introspective. In their world, where split-second decisions were required to avoid catastrophe, reflective thought could be deadly. Their job was to maintain an icy resolve, “the right stuff,” as author Tom Wolfe described it in his legendary book and movie of the same name, which has become a catchphrase for audaciousness and equipoise.
“The Apollo astronauts were the cream of the crop,” says Dr. Santy. “They were remarkable men in many, many ways; their skill sets were incredibly high.”
As for The Right Stuff, the Eagles, for the first time, comment on both the book and the movie, which they say could have gone further in exploring the layered complexity of genuine courage.
And what about fear? Dr. Santy gives here a little-known example of it when Neil Armstrong (known as Mr. Cool Stone to his fellow Eagles) was running out of fuel while scanning the lunar landscape for a boulder-free area to land on: “When they were landing on the Moon, they had a heart rate monitor on Armstrong. And one of the things that was absolutely remarkable to the doctors was that his heart rate was 160. This is practically unheard of. His heart was beating so fast that’s what we would say are the physiological signs of fear.”
So how did Armstrong work around his fear? It’s a technique described first by Winston Churchill’s doctor in The Anatomy of Courage, a book in which he analyzed fear in soldiers and pilots during World Wars I and II. It’s the same technique used by the Apollo astronauts and, as we’ll discover, the same method used today by the Navy SEALs who trained to kill Osama bin Laden.
Side by side with their physical courage were also examples of moral courage. This is particularly true of Borman and Anders, the former in taking on President Richard M. Nixon over his overtly nationalistic public relations plan for the first moon landing, and the latter in a showdown with the nuclear power industry over safety standards when Anders was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The psychological profiles of the Eagles revealed two virtues that Aristotle maintained are vital to a healthy society: devotion to something greater than oneself and the pursuit of what he called the common good, which Anders cited as one of the reasons he was willing to risk his life going to the moon.
It is reassuring to know that these men are still filled with boundless confidence in America’s ability to always resurrect itself from setbacks and crises.
The Eagles’ stories offer refreshing hope. As Neil Armstrong said shortly before he died:
Like that of Ulysses, each of our lives is a miniature Odyssey, going to new places, seeing new things, understanding new ideas, and each penetrating the biggest unknown of all: TOMORROW! For each of us it should be and can be an exciting voyage.
THE REAL RIGHT STUFF: SELECTING THE EAGLES
Courage involves a risk-reward decision with reward factors to include “Duty, Honor, Country, and the common good.”
The world you enjoy today was made by these people most of whom came from often economically challenged backgrounds but had a passion about doing something that was important, in this case the space program.
West Point and its motto really shaped me,” says Frank Borman. “I went there an eighteen-year-old kid from a small desert town, and it was a four-year period that really molded my character and my beliefs.”
- "A powerful reminder from the men who went to the moon about the timeless values of duty, honor, country, and moral courage. Basil Hero has captured rare portraits of the remaining lunar explorers who offer provocative insights into the future of our home planet."—George Stephanopoulos, ABC News
- "A phenomenal portrait of humankind's precious and endangered incubator and of the dedicated, courageous and soulful lunar explorers who created that portrait. A must read for all Earthlings."—William E. Burrows, Aerospace historian and author of This New Ocean.
- "The astronauts' humility, leadership, and belief in the common good shine through this lucid portrait, an inspiring book for any earthling."—--Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2019
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing