Transcript: Space4U podcast, Basil Hero

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hi, this is Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation. And this is the Space4U podcast conversations with the people who make space and all of our space adventures possible. I’m sitting here today with one of the great storytellers about our space adventure Basil Hero. The author of newly released book called “The Mission of a Lifetime: Lessons From the Men Who Went to the Moon.”


Basil is an accomplished journalist working for a number of major media outlets, but his ability to tell the story of. Well, I will say the very personal story of the people who were part of the greatest adventures of humanity. Is pretty astounding. Again, the book is called the mission of a lifetime lessons from the men who went to the moon.


Basil how did this book get started? Well, the longest time I have wanted to tell this story and I wanted to. Do a very deep dive with the lunar explorers themselves. And, uh, in 1969, the day after, uh, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, the New York times did this, uh, wonderful section, um, with all of the thought leaders of the day, asking them what they thought about it.


And they were coming at it from the philosophical, from the spiritual side, also from the technological and the, and the cultural side. They interviewed everyone from a very young Dalai Lama. Two heads of the Orthodox churches of philosophers poets. And that’s what intrigued me what they were saying about how man’s perception of himself in the universe would change.


And I knew that the best ambassadors and best sources for that information would be the astronauts themselves and, uh, you know, over the last 45-50 years. I think I have consumed every book there is to consume on, on their missions. Interestingly, no one has ever really talked to them, post the right stuff about the anatomy of courage.


Uh, what they think about moral courage, uh, how they were able to conquer their fear, uh, what they thought about, uh, spirituality, their perception of God after, uh, being out there 240,000 miles away. Uh, the common good, the kinds of existential questions. That they really weren’t prepared to talk about, or nobody thought to ask them about, uh, shortly after their missions.


And, uh, I felt that now that they’re approaching, uh, their nineties, some are already in their nineties, late eighties. Um, that they might be filled with the kinds of philosophical reflections that would be of great value to all of us. And so, uh, in my quest to get them to talk to me, the very first question they asked was, well, what is it that you’re going to do that nobody else has done?


And they asked me to submit, you know, a two-page memo. Uh, with a thesis of the book and they were immediately taken by it. Uh, and the first person that I talked to was, uh, Bill Anders, who took the famous earthrise photo on Apollo 8. Uh, we had a wonderful conversation. He’s a, an armchair historian. We swapped stories about history.


And, uh, uh, as a funny aside, he took me into his study where he has all of his, uh, Uh, meatier and, and, and, and fossil collections. And he said to me, he said, look, he says, you know, geologists, uh, say that, uh, you can sometimes tell something about a rock just by tasting it while I was sensing a set up. So, okay.


So he says here, take a lick of this. I did. And he says, you know what? That is. Fossilized dinosaur shit. They have a wonderful sense of humor, these fellows. But what he said to me was that, that the true source of courage comes from essentially four things. Duty honor country and the common good. And this was something that I heard from all of them.


And the common good is not a notion that you hear much about these days. And it’s, I think something that needs to be reintroduced into the national dialogue. Uh, many of them feel that we have become terribly tribal and overly nationalistic. And so if they had to sort of reframe the notion of a duty honor country, I think it would read Judy honor earth citizens of the earth.


So they are committed to their country, but they came back committed as well. Planetary citizens, not just Americans Wolfe, coined that phrase, the right stuff. That is the moniker that certainly embraces the original mercury seven astronauts. But this is the Apollo and the Gemini astronauts. Or certainly a continuation of the right stuff.


You, as someone who has watched these people, uh, from afar when they were first doing their adventures, but now someone who’s interviewed them have gets a larger perspective of them. So my question is, after meeting all of these people, What is the right stuff, the right stuff in, in their minds is, is this above all humility, uh, not bragging about your accomplishments to be courageous, but not boastful, uh, to learn how to master your fear.


To always be prepared the old boy scout motto and to train and train and train. So it’s not that these men were fearless and there was, I think, a misconception that the movie, the right stuff created and they did not like the movie. None of them, did they enjoyed the book, but they felt that the movie made them appear slightly as risk takers, who weren’t calculating the risks or, and, and fearless and somewhat dare devilish.


Well, nothing could be farther from the truth. These men were all highly educated engineers, a number of them with PhDs, most of them with masters in nuclear engineering and, uh, and aeronautics. They were very well-prepared. So as test pilots, they knew the ins and outs of the aircraft that they were testing.


They studied the blueprints. They knew exactly what the capabilities of that aircraft was and they never pushed it beyond the limits that they knew that the, um, the aircraft was capable of. So they had a very finely tuned appreciation. Of calculated risk and they train for it so that when they did run into problems, they knew that they could go to plan B and plan C and D.


There were always options that they could exercise. So they stayed, stayed calm. They stayed focused. And it’s something that the Navy seals today call front sight focus and they train the fear out of you by preparing you for every conceivable failure. Uh, so in this regard, uh, there is something to, I learn from them and I think they want the world to know that, and it applies in every area of your life.


You know, to not panic, to keep calm, to assess the situation that you are in. And particularly if you were in the business of say something like space, to make sure that you know, what, what all of your contingencies and checklists are, and to, uh, go down the list and act appropriately. Okay. You said that when these individuals came back to earth, they weren’t just Americans.


They were larger citizens of the world or in that regard, how Wells. Did these individuals change. And I guess I would ask which of those people, based upon that experience you think changed the most? Well, they all, they all changed in many of the same ways and the, and the, the similar, the common denominator amongst all of them.


Was that when they returned, they saw earth as the garden of Eden as paradise. So think for a moment you’re walking on the moon, you’re, you’re just one pinprick away from death. There’s nothing on the moon. It is a dead lifeless as buzz Aldrin said, magnificent desolation nymphos desolation. Absolutely correct.


And here they are for, you know, depending on. The later missions where they spent two days on the surface of the moon and what have you. So here they are out there for almost two weeks breathing. 100% oxygen, no natural air, not a shred of greenery and or anywhere. And they come splashed down into the Pacific Ocean and the way Alan Bean, who was the fourth Moonwalker described it.


He said when we opened that hatch and we’re just overwhelmed by that lush warm Pacific Ocean air, he said it was as if, you know, we had landed in the, in the cradle of life. And he said, you know, I have never complained about the weather since I’m glad we have the weather. I’m glad we have traffic. And he went into a shopping mall, sat down with an ice cream cone and just started watching people walk by.


So they, they achieve this new found appreciation for life. Here on earth. Now, the ways, the different ways in which they reacted in terms of religion, you had some, uh, like Jim Rowan who, uh, reinforced his belief in Jesus and said that Jesus talked to him while he was on the surface and helped him with a particularly different experiment.


In the case of Charlie Duke, he did not find God while walking on the moon. He rediscovered God afterwards, you then have the case of bill Anders who went out a practicing Catholic. Returned three days later and said, you know, it’s ridiculous to think that God said sits up there with his supercomputer.


And he questioned all of the teachings that, that he had, uh, absorbed as, as, as a kid from the Catholic church. I think where they were, they mostly came around to was Einstein’s of beautiful articulation of bowing. To the unknowable, but, um, understanding that there is this wonderful logic and order to the universe and that, that is the true source of, of religious ness.


And, uh, I think that resonated for many of them in the case of Pete Conrad, he said it made no difference in his life whatsoever. He was a little bit of an outlier in that regard. And Pete was just kind of a funny irreverent actually colorful character. Yes. Uh, all of those people have amazing color, but I think Pete Conrad has his own spectrum.


He, he is. And in fact, you know, I received a letter lovely email from his wife who just read the book and said she was brought to tears by it. And she’s invited me out to Seattle in November where they’re, uh, doing a, a Memorial. And, uh, what have you there at the, uh, at the museum space museum? So the, the reactions were, were quite different.


They all believe that there is life on other planets. They think that it’s just a statistical certainty in the same way that Enrico Fermi said that who was the famous Italian physicist who worked on the Manhattan project to create America’s first nuclear bomb, atomic bomb. And for me, it’s known as Fermi’s paradox.


Fermi may have said that given the billions of galaxies, that there are out there, that there must be life, um, on, on other planets and what form it is, who knows. But then he, he sort of reflected at the end of it. And he said, well, you know, if there is life out there, well, where is everybody he famously asks. Uh, so that’s, you know, that’s an intriguing question to that.


I think, um, you know, plagues, uh, all of us, each of the astronauts certainly were taking on a death-defying activity. But there are also people in their immediate orbit who bore a cost and consequence to all of these adventures. Each of these death-defying missions, what were the changes and costs and consequences that happened with their families?


Well, they sacrifice their families. Uh, the, the divorce rate was 60%. Uh, the, you know, NASA was great at, at, at, uh, putting, uh, the men through. Uh, all kinds of simulations for failure, but no one trained the wives for marriage and how to succeed in their marriages. Uh, two men who were committed, uh, basically, I mean, they were working 16-hour days, seven days a week. And they spent very little time with their families. And so there was a very high price paid by the wives and the children. There were a few successful marriages. I focus in the book on the four that did manage to survive and thrive, and it was mostly the result. Of, uh, good communication skills between, uh, the astronauts and the wives.


So for example, Bill Anders on Apollo 8 would take his wife with him, uh, when he tour, uh, the factories that were making, you know, the various parts of the spacecraft. And she was very thankful for that. So Bill was very honest with her about the dangers. And so is Jim Lovell. Uh, Frank Borman, I think had a little bit of a greater challenge.


Um, his wife was a very Regal, uh, elegant woman and, and never allowed herself to display her, her real terror. And so she was quietly drinking and sliding into depression. And Frank only later realized how bad it was. And he, um, loved her deeply, uh, admitted that he had failed to spend more time with her, you know, emotionally and otherwise and helped her get through it.


Uh, so the wives to this day, still talk to each other and have, uh, luncheons. And, uh, it was a real education for me to talk to them in, in including some of their children and Mike Collins daughters. Uh, and I had a very long conversation and they’re in the book as well, talking about how they dealt with the press, which was oh, always chasing after them.


So when you look at that era, life magazine had an exclusive relationship with the astronauts that now. Would not be possible for a lot of different reasons, but we’re now in an era with social media and the sort of public shaping of lots of new, different categories of astronauts. Uh, we have now commercial astronauts.


Uh, we certainly have a far more diverse astronaut Corps. When you talk about the lessons from the men who went to the moon, what do you think if that most of elite fraternities. Could counsel the new generation of astronauts. What do you think they would say to prepare them for missions to the moon and beyond?


I think they would tell them to train as, as hard and as intensely as they did. I think they would tell them to remember. The four words that they live by duty honor country, the common good, and to be humble and to not be braggarts, uh, and to make sure that they are involved in every part of the operation, which includes.


Visiting with the contractors and the people who were building, uh, the spacecraft and to, uh, fully appreciate calculated risk. Um, I think those would be the, the main things that they would, uh, advise them on and to be morally courageous so that if they spot something that they think is wrong, you know, to call it up to management.


Which they did, uh, in that era. And, uh, I am hopeful that the same moral courage exists today. Uh, basically you can’t have conversations with people who literally rewrote human history. And not have it create change in you. How did the experience with this book change you? I think what it did for me was it restored my faith in humanity, quite frankly.


Uh, certainly a segment of it. And it reminded me that America had the ability to create these kinds of men and women. And I think it still does. I think the pool of available men and women, like that may be shrinking a little bit, but they’re still there. I think you find them in the military. I think you find them, uh, with the Navy seals who also live by the same code that the Apollo astronauts did.


I think that it’s important for us in the wider culture to hear this message. And so, uh, that’s what I. Uh, took away from them. And there is, uh, you know, this wonderful, uh, statement from, uh, Mike Collins, who, when he returned, uh, from the moon and they went on their round, the world tour. And if I may quickly read from it, he, he said that there was this extraordinary moment that wherever they went, here’s what he said, wherever we went.


People instead of saying, well, you Americans did it everywhere. They said we did it. We humanity, humankind. We, the human race, we people did it. And I had never heard of people in different countries. Use this word. We, we, as emphatically, as we were hearing from Europeans Asians, Africans, wherever we went, it was, we finally did it.


I thought it was a wonderful thing, a femoral, but wonderful. And you had this brief moment in time there where the entire planet saw the American moon landing as an international feat. And I think it’s part of the genius of America in that. We represent the world because virtually every ethnic group and country is represented here.


And so it would be nice if we could recap. Sure. I think that planetary collective and that notion that we are one human race living on this tiny planet and that we should all work together. Uh, instead of against each other and to go explore space as planetary civilization and not as individual nations, again, competing against each other in the same way that the explorers and countries of the 15th century did the book is called the mission of a lifetime lessons from the men who went to the moon.


It’s written by Basil Hero, committed to all of our listeners and to anybody who is a space enthusiast, and wants to better understand, not just the people who made history, but how that history can shape us. Basil thank you very much for your time. This is Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation and the Space4U podcasts.


Uh, encouraging you to keep in mind all the things that we have going on at the Space Foundation. You can find those at, as well as our Space Foundation app, because at the Space Foundation, we always have space for you. Thank you.

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Space4U Podcast: Basil Hero, Apollo Author