Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Some Have to Live With the Scars

I got to meet astronaut Mike Mullane tonight at a presentation he gave to local scout groups. Like all astronauts I've met, he's really larger than life. In Mike Mullane's case, it's a wall of enthusiasm that isn't pinned down by the official NASA talking points.

Looking at his humble roots, it may seem surprising. He wasn't a great athlete while in high school. His grades were barely good enough to get him into West Point (after the two people selected ahead of him were unable to attend.) He skipped out on junior & senior prom, and the only thing written in his yearbook was "You missed out on Korea, but here's to hoping you get to go to Vietnam."

And go to Vietnam he did. He couldn't live out his dream of being a pilot, but he was a weapons systems officer in the greatest jet airplane ever built (the F-4 Phantom II) and did his best. Even though he thought he would never get to be an astronaut with his WSO background, fortune smiled upon him when NASA created a new category of non-pilot astronauts, mission specialists, for the Space Shuttle.

While the presentation dealt with some physics on a level the young audience could understand, Mike Mullane focused primarily on the four keys to living a great life, even if you don't get to be an astronaut:
--Dream big (within your limits)
--Do your best at whatever you do
--Take care of your body
--Learn as much as you can

Again, they're very sound rules for life in general. Implied in this message is that the worst setbacks we suffer are the ones we inflict on ourselves. How many people have been held back or suffered because of poor diet, insufficient exercise, smoking, drinking to excess, or drug abuse? How many people have been too scared to strive for lofty goals that were within reach? How many people were gifted but never applied themselves towards their lot in life? How many people abandoned an education early in life, only to be denied later on when it came time to fulfill an ambition?

Mike Mullane summed up his advice by citing Sir Elton John in Circle of Life:
Some of us fall by the wayside
And some of us soar to the stars
And some of us sail through our troubles
And some have to live with the scars

If we take care of ourselves, put in the effort, strive to learn, and strive for our dreams, we will soar to the stars regardless of the troubles. For those who cut their education short and abuse their bodies, they often fall to the wayside.

For Mike Mullane (and, undoubtedly, the vast majority of people at the core of the Shuttle program in the mid-80's,) the scars of Challenger are still raw. People in a position to make a difference didn't do the best they could, and seven brave astronauts paid the ultimate price. I suspect that everyone within the program went through intense soul-searching over whether they could have done something differently to prevent the disaster.

I will try to continue my education, not for selfish reasons, but to make me a better engineer and a better citizen. I won't give up on my dreams of working to put man back on the moon and beyond. And I will always remember that the deepest wounds occur when we hurt ourselves.