I was watching a great show about the space program the other day. It was a bit surprising since I can rarely find a show I haven’t seen at least once. Even the crappiest documentary or movie will get my attention.
In this case, the documentary was In the Shadow of the Moon and was filled with interviews of the astronauts that went to the moon along with some footage I had never seen before.
There were some great stories in it. I’ll share two of my favorites. The first was about the unflappable Neil Armstrong. Al Bean told the story about how he went into the astronaut office shortly after Neil barely escaped with his life after the lunar lander simulator went out of control and he ejected while it was flying sideways at about 150 feet.
Neil was sitting at his desk making doing some slide-rule calculations. Al couldn’t believe he had actually ejected a few hours earlier. When Al asked him if it was true, Neil simply said, “Yup.” Nothing about almost dying. No details about the event. Wow!
The second was told by Buzz Aldrin. He noted that the astronauts were required to pause at the last step of the ladder before jumping onto the landing pad. He used this time to fill his urine bag. He said every astronaut has his own first on the surface of the moon. Being the first to pee on the moon was his.
The stories are simply amazing. These guys really do have The Right Stuff. I admit to being a bit envious when it came to how they are able to control their emotions in the toughest situations and I tend to fall apart in the simplest ones, or worse, ones that have never come to pass.
I blame my overly fertile imagination for this. I mean, I can conjure up the wildest scenarios when it comes to things that could happen. During our recent record snow, I was sure that every crack and creak of the house was a warning sign that the roof was about to collapse. I even spent a sleepless night waiting for it to happen.
It didn’t. Very few things that I come up with like this ever happen. Many years ago, I was sure that my Grand Am, affectionately known as the Crap Am, was going to die on us. It did eventually. It wasn’t that I had some power of prognostication. Cars break and even if the thing had a dead battery one wintery morning I would have claimed some victory that yes, I was right.
I’m not, of course. I spend a lot of time worrying about things that will never happen. And that is what sets me apart from the astronauts.
They don’t think like I do. Michael Collins said it best. He said there’s a million things that could have gone wrong at any minute on a moon mission. One tiny malfunction could set off a string of events that could kill them or leave them circling the moon for eternity.
We saw this happen, of course, with Apollo 13. Tom Hanks handled the whole explosion with aplomb in the movie. Jim Lovell did him one better when it actually happened to him. When he said, “Houston, we have a problem” his voice is so calm in the actual recording it was as if he were giving a weather report on a sunny day.
The reason is simple and it’s not all the training they do. No amount of training can take every possibility into account. It’s the fact that they never took the time to think about the .001% of things that could go wrong, only the 99.999% that was going right at the time.
It was a real moment of clarity for me. We spend so much of our lives worrying about what might happen that we miss what is happening all around us at this very moment.
Instead of being present in the moment, we’re worrying about the bills that are overdue or the noise coming from our engine. In my case, the roof collapsing. Millions of things that can go wrong but might and probably won’t ever happen, causing us to miss living in the moment and enjoying this amazing miracle called life.
Now that’s The Right Stuff! For decades I’ve spent a lot of valuable time worrying about what might happen. And yet, it was those things I didn’t know was about to go wrong that I’ve handled the best. From the end of a relationship to driving like a bat out of hell to the hospital so my son wouldn’t be born in the town of Gorst and spend the rest of his life working at a Radio Shack because of it.
I’ve have had that Stuff momentarily when I was in the middle of a crisis, which thinking back, was often. I’m actually pretty good at working the problem when there is a problem. The decisions come easily and I have amazing clarity.
All that stuff I could worry about that could go wrong? A bunch of mental masturbation that leads absolutely nowhere.
Case in point. Finding that your car won’t start in the driveway offers a very different set of decisions than if your car is in a bar parking lot in a seedy part of town and it’s two in the morning. You can worry day and night that your car may not start. But until it does, you can’t assess the situation as there’s no context, only a fertile imagination running amock with all the possibilities.
That’s how these maintain-an-even-strain astronauts handle life. In the moment. Avoiding problems as best they can and working the problem when one does come up. The alternative – considering everything that could ever happen – is not an option because it will only be a distraction, making you crazy with the endless possibilities.
I’ve wasted enough of my life worrying about all that stuff that never seems to happen. I think I’m going to try harder to live in that magical moment of now and stop worrying. Maybe it’s not too late to have The Right Stuff after all.
In the Emerald City, looking at the stars without wondering which one was going to fall from the sky and kill me,