As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of man’s first steps on another world, some question whether our government should pursue manned space exploration when so many problems remain to be solved on earth. Those who doubt the value of space exploration overlook the intangible windfall of Apollo – the inspiration of a generation of young people to achieve impossible goals. If we fail to pursue manned space exploration, that most important accomplishment of Apollo is lost.

Here are the life lessons Apollo taught me. They are as relevant to young people today as they were 50 years ago:

Lesson 1. Be Accountable and Competent.

The very first Apollo spacecraft never left the launch pad. A fire on board during a routine simulation destroyed the spacecraft and killed the crew. An investigation later discovered that a spark generated by faulty wiring had ignited the pure oxygen atmosphere. In retrospect, pressurizing the capsule with pure oxygen had been a hazardous choice.

After the fire, flight director Gene Kranz inspired his team to be accountable and to move forward with competence:

“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘tough’ and ‘competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. … Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. …

From Apollo 1, I learned that integrity and competence ultimately trump cover-ups and ineptitude. Blaming others and harboring resentment creates a vicious cycle.  Success may require that you work harder and do your job better than the person in the next cubical who did not have obstacles placed in his career path. Persevere. Do not blame others. Admit your mistakes and learn from them.’

Lesson 2. Every problem has a solution.

In April 1970, at the launch of Apollo 13, I was a 1-year-old girl in a world in which women were secretaries, teachers or nurses and men were everything else. I wanted to become a scientist but was told I could not. I almost believed this was true until the Apollo 13 spacecraft, crippled by an explosion while en route to the moon, returned safely to earth.

In the film version of Apollo 13, the statement, “Failure is not an option,” is attributed to Kranz. These may not have been his exact words but they expressed the flight director’s determination to solve an apparently unsolvable  problem.

Three months after Apollo 13 returned safely to earth, my mother suffered a sudden fatal heart attack. It was an emotionally crippling blow. Instead of giving in to depression, I applied to college for early admission and worked my way through school to earn chemistry and biochemistry degrees. From Apollo 13, I had learned that every problem has a solution.

Lesson 3. We share an obligation to help others achieve their goals.

Apollo 11 was Neil Armstrong’s final venture into space. Following the lunar landing, he went on to become a Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati and gave back to his community.

Armstrong’s family released the following statement after his death:

“While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.”

Neil Armstrong has always been my hero. From Armstrong, I learned there is no greater legacy than inspiring young people to pursue their dreams.

I worked in the biotechnology industry for 20 years before accepting a position teaching chemistry at a public high school. My accomplishments in industry have long since faded, but the influence I had as a teacher continues. My former students have careers that were unimaginable 50 years ago. One former student is involved in designing components for the next Mars rover.

You can be certain I’ll be watching when it lands.


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