There’s No Such Thing as a “Typical Astronaut”

Francis French is the coauthor of Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961–1965 (Nebraska, 2007) and In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969 (Nebraska, 2010). His books and others are available for 50% off in our Spaceflight Sale for a limited time.

When working on the University of Nebraska Press books Into That Silent Sea and In the Shadow of the Moon, my co-author Colin Burgess and I had some remarkable personal encounters with people who made humankind’s first journeys away from our planet. In a month when people are reflecting on the Apollo 11 lunar landing, half a century ago, I’m reminded of how special those encounters were.

For thousands of years, humans imagined what it would be like to leave Earth and journey to the moon. It was the realm of fantasy, of science fiction—of the future. Then it happened. And now we are in a new century, and talking of events measured in half-centuries. When did the future become the distant past, talked of in the same framework as historians talk about World War Two? How can it be so long ago?

By the time Colin and I began interviewing spacefarers for the books, more than thirty years had passed. The immediacy of the events had gone. These people had had a long time to reflect on what they had done. We soon found that there was no such thing as a “typical astronaut.” From philosophical scientists who remained wide-eyed decades later, to wise-cracking test pilots who loved to set up convoluted puns while describing their flying feats, they were as different as we could have ever imagined. They only had one thing in common: they had all sat on top of a rocket one day. Whatever happened to them in that moment was going to be memorable.

Most of them had had little time to ponder what they were experiencing during their years as spacefarers. They were there to do a job, to work down a checklist, item after item, until the mission was complete. They felt immense pride in what they had done, and had taken great care never to mess up. Everything else had been irrelevant. But over time, they’d be able to think profoundly about the moments they had experienced. They’d made footprints on the moon, watching how the dust radiated away with every step they took. They’d watched the sun set over the limb of Earth as they’d flown into darkness. They’d looked into the blackest black they had ever seen—darker than they had believed was possible—and pondered if it had an end, and what else was out there in those vast distances. Decades later, they were glad to tell us of these wonders.

We were fortunate enough to talk with all three of the Apollo 11 crew members. While the engineering feats they accomplished were extraordinary, we were also interested in who they were as people, as individuals.

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong was quiet, almost shy, and had no real wish to be in the public spotlight. When giving speeches, he’d choose his words with precision. He’d also make sure to deflect attention away from his own achievements and towards the immense team of tens of thousands who made the moon landing possible. Nevertheless, he was a resolute person who, if he did not want to do something, would never succumb to peer pressure. He was not, and never would have been, the swaggering hero seen in so many science fiction space adventure movies. Instead, he conveyed quiet dignity, and the space program was better for it.

Command Module Pilot Mike Collins is wry, dry and humorous. He’s not one to make a quip, but instead will make a joke that is so wittily smart, he gets an even better laugh. He’s someone who gives the sense of having done what he wanted to do in life, and has nothing more to prove. He’s also a gifted writer, who can relate the experience of journeying to the moon better than any. His descriptions of his experiences greatly enlivened our understanding of the human side of exploration.

Buzz Aldrin will talk about the moon landing, but only when he really feels he has to. He was a jet pilot and flew in combat, but unlike his two crew members was never a test pilot. Instead, he has a more academic, scientific background. He loves to delve in detail into the most arcane and complex space problems, such as how to go to Mars, and beyond. To him, the moon is old news—he’s thinking a century or more ahead. He’s a complex person—confounding, sometimes, in his dogged pursuit of a new interest instead of what people want from him. It makes him an even more fascinating character.

Fifty years on, the people who journeyed to the moon are in their eighties—at a minimum. Some are older than that. Some have passed away, as long as thirty-seven years ago. Many stories are lost forever. Some pioneers are too busy enjoying a well-earned retirement to wish to retell old stories. Others are taking every opportunity to talk about the future instead of the past.

We chanced upon a brief moment in history, a window of time in which the people who did remarkable things were ready to reflect rather than stop talking about their experience. It makes me feel all the more fortunate.

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