How do you choose the men who will either make history or die trying? What criteria does a wise person use? Your decision must be sensible, effective, efficient and — in the end — defensible. How do you choose?
The astronauts of Apollo 11 where selected from a group that started on the small side of select and narrowed to three men: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Two of them, Armstrong and Aldrin, would be the first human beings to set foot on a surface not of this earth. The third, Collins, would keep the home fires burning on the space capsule that would be their way home. It was Collins who performed the necessary docking maneuvers with the lunar module, which allowed Armstrong and Aldrin to rejoin him for the return home.
Who were they? What were they? Why were they chosen?
Armstrong and Aldrin had both served as fighter pilots in the Korean War. Collins was a test pilot. All of them went into space first in the Gemini program. They had all shown the right stuff when it came to technical skill and that detached focus while under fire that is generally referred to as “coolness.” None were particularly showy or talkative. While some of the NASA crews chose to bond tightly, even to buying color-coded Corvettes, these three seemed to tacitly agree that prep for Apollo 11 was going to be all about the business at hand.
Neil Armstrong became a licensed pilot at age 16. He completed his college degree after serving in the Korean War (being shot down once). He then became a test pilot with more than 1,100 hours in supersonic fighters, including the X-15.
As command pilot of Gemini 8, Armstrong had to manually take control of the spacecraft after a rocket thruster malfunctioned. After completing the first manual space docking maneuver (a necessary prelude to the Apollo program), the errant thruster sent the rocket spinning out of control. Armstrong and his team had to detach from the rocket, establish control and then make an emergency splashdown in the Pacific.
Buzz Aldrin graduated third in his class at West Point. At NASA, Aldrin was known as Dr. Rendezvous. He earned a doctorate in astronautics at MIT and wrote his thesis on manned orbital rendezvous. The techniques he devised for docking were critical to the success of the Gemini and Apollo programs. Aldrin was also the first man to conduct a successful spacewalk, setting an “extravehicular activity” record of 5½ hours.
Michael Collins is an example of the self-discipline required of not just astronauts, but all successful people. The child of a career military family, he went to West Point and then into the dangerous field of test pilot on experimental planes. He decided to try for the astronaut program after watching John Glenn’s flight. He didn’t make the cut. Instead of giving up, he took advanced flight training at the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School and made it into the third group of astronauts.
Collins performed a spacewalk on Gemini 10 and was the head of astronaut ground control communications on Apollo 8 before being selected for Apollo 11. Instead of complaining about being the “forgotten man” on this historic mission Collins always said he felt honored to be selected.
Team spirit. Discipline.
Certainly, the first astronauts tended to look like their times. That is, they were white and male. But that does not mean they weren’t the right people with the right qualifications. The people whom we choose to go to Mars are going to be people of our times, but they will still have to be the right people with the right qualifications. The faces and the names will change, but we will still have to find that thin slice of humanity who have coolness, leadership, intelligence, preparation, a team spirit and self-discipline.
What are we doing to find, train and encourage such people now?
The right stuff will keep the faith.
Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in McAllen. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.