The Wisdom of the 12 Men Who Walked on the Moon

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIt is perhaps the most elite club on the planet Earth — out of the 7.5 billion people that populate this planet, only a fortunate few — 12 courageous men — have travelled the more than 240,000 miles to land and walk on the Moon. Of those 12 astronauts, as of July 20, 2019 (the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing), only four are still alive: Buzz Aldrin (89 years old), David Scott (87), Charles Duke (83), and Harrison Schmitt (84). If there ever was a moment that united the entire planet, it was that fateful day that Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon at 2:46 UTC. NASA estimated that 500 people around the globe watched this event, transfixed to their television sets. It is one of those magical, memorable moments. Ask anyone from that generation: “Where were you when man landed on the Moon,” and that individual will travel back in time and happily recollect details from that glorious day.

Despite their different upbringing, training, and character, what united these 12 men, apart from this incredibly ambitious, complex, and risky mission, was the opportunity to see the planet Earth like no other human being — a truly global, or more accurately — universal perspective. As you read through their quotations, one thing becomes crystal clear: the experience of standing on the gray, barren lunar terrain allowed them to see the Earth in an entirely new way — to behold its stunning beauty, but realize its fragility. Each of them was profoundly impacted by this powerful, yet humbling, experience and they carried this unique perspective, this worldly insight, for the rest of their lives. One would wish that every world leader, military leader, and politician would have a similar experience and revelation — for the sake of their country, and the world at large. Astrophysicist Carl Sagan summarized it best in a beautiful, eloquent speech delivered at Cornell University in 1994: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Neil Alden Armstrong (Apollo 11, Commander)
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin (Apollo 11, Lunar Module Pilot)
“I don’t know why people who have not been on rockets continue to ask, ‘you’re not scared?’ no we were not scared… until something happens, then it’s time to get scared.”

Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr. (Apollo 12, Commander)
“I made the remark when we went over the top, ‘eureka, Houston, the Earth is really round,’ and when i got back to Houston, I got all this mail from members of the Flat Earth Society telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Alan LaVerne Bean (Apollo 12, Lunar Module Pilot)
“Since that time, I have not complained about the weather one single time. I’m glad there is weather. iIve not complained about traffic, I’m glad there’s people around… boy we’re lucky to be here. Why do people complain about the Earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden.”

Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. (Apollo 14, Commander)
“I realized up there that our planet is not infinite. It’s fragile. That may not be obvious to a lot of folks, and it’s tough that people are fighting each other here on Earth instead of trying to get together and live on this planet. We look pretty vulnerable in the darkness of space.

Edgar Dean “Ed” Mitchell (Apollo 14, Lunar Module Pilot)
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. you want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

David Randolph Scott (Apollo 15, Commander)
“It truly is an oasis and we don’t take very good care of it. And I think the elevation of that awareness is a real contribution to, you know, saving the Earth if you will.”

James Benson “Jim” Irwin (Apollo 15, Lunar Module Pilot)
“The Earth reminded us of a christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”

John Watts Young (Apollo 16, Commander)
“NASA is not about the ‘adventure of human space exploration,’ we are in the deadly serious business of saving the species. All human exploration’s bottom line is about preserving our species over the long haul.”

Charles Moss “Charlie” Duke Jr. (Apollo 16, Lunar Module Pilot)
Tthat jewel of Earth was just hung up in the blackness of space. The only people that have seen the whole circle of the Earth are the 24 guys that went to the Moon.”

Eugene Andrew Cernan (Apollo 17, Commander
“The night before I flew, I wrote a letter to Tracy, just in case: to my darling daughter Tracy — Trace, you’re almost too young to understand what it means to have your daddy to go to the moon… I want you to look at the Moon because when you are reading this, daddy is almost there.”

Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt (Apollo 17, Lunar Module Pilot)
“Working on the Moon is a lot of fun. It’s like walking around on a giant trampoline all the time and you’re just as strong as you were here on Earth but you don’t weigh as much. You only weigh one-sixth of what you weigh on the Moon. even with the suit and the backpack, my total weight was only 61 pounds.”

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Read related posts: Carl Sagan’s Reflection on the Pale Blue Dot
The Black Hole and the Pale Blue Dot: the Humbling of Humanity
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For further reading:

Doublets: I Have Been Bent and Broken, But, I Hope, Into A Better Shape

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“[When] suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.”

Estella speaking to Pip, from the final chapter of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). In the final scene, Pip visits the site of Satis House after a period of eleven years. While standing in the garden, Estella emerges from the moonlit mist. Both have changed a great deal since they last parted; Estella says, “I am greatly changed. I wonder you know me.” They sit down on a bench and fondly discuss the past. They realize that they have often thought of one another; however, Estella wants to assure Pip that she has changed for the better.

“What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

From the “Maxims and Arrows” chapter, which contains aphorism on various topics, from Twilight of the Idols (the original title of the book was A Psychologist’s Idleness) by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). The idea mirrors what Nietzsche has expressed in the preface: “War has always been the great wisdom of all spirits who have become too introspective, too profound; even in a wound there is the power to heal. A maxim, the origin of which I withhold from scholarly curiosity, has long been my motto: Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus. [“The spirits increase, vigor grows through a wound.”]  Nietzsche returns to that same notion in a later book, Ecco Homo, where he writes: “What does not kill him makes him stronger.” The line has been paraphrased a number of ways over the years in popular culture, including “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger” and “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”

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Nixon’s Eloquent Apollo 11 Speech that America Never Heard

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsIt is one of the most memorable days in American history — when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 on the Sea of Tranquility. The Apollo 11 mission, of course, was a complete success. Nixon became the first President to speak to two Americans on the moon. He spoke briefly to the astronauts, more than 240,000 miles away, via telephone patched to Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Nixon expressed tremendous national pride: “Hello, Neil and Buzz. I’m talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made. I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you’ve done. For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one: one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”

But what if a disaster occurred and two or all three astronauts were left to perish in the cold, dark expanse of space? Although it was possible for Collins to have returned to the earth, NASA had a concern that Armstrong and Aldrin would not be able to lift off from the moon and rejoin Collins in the command module. That would mean that the two astronauts would be left stranded on the moon, eventually exhausting their oxygen. Therefore, William Safire, President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, had been asked to prepare a speech in the event of such a tragedy. Fortunately, it was a speech that Nixon never had to deliver. The speech, entitled “In Event of Moon Disaster” was written by Safire on July 18, 1969. It was discovered in the late 1990s by journalist and author James Mann among the archives of the Nixon administration (then located in College Park, Maryland) while he was researching a book on America’s relationship with China. What the speech lacks in length (it is only 233 words on two typewritten pages), it makes up in stirring images and heartwarming eloquence. Mann writes: “The short text still brings tears to the eyes… What Safire wrote would have qualified as the most eloquent speech Nixon every gave — and one of the most poignant by any American president. Thankfully, it never had to be delivered.” The letter is now displayed at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

In Event of Moon Disaster

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

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For further reading:

The Wisdom of Russian Proverbs

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomLike every people, the Russians have their own accumulation of wisdom that has been passed on from generation to generation through stories, fables, and proverbs. I recently came across a little book of Russian Proverbs published by Peter Pauper Press (try saying that fast three times) in 1960. Peter Pauper Press, founded in 1928, publishes small gift books, including books of quotations and proverbs. Here is some timeless wisdom found in their collection of Russian proverbs:

Where the needle goes, the thread follows.

Counting other people’s money will never make you rich.

Slander, like coal, will either dirty your hand or burn it.

Wash a pig as much as you like, it will return to the mud.

Learn good things — the bad will teach you by themselves.

Better bread and water, than cake and trouble.

No apple is safe from worms.

If you don’t know how to be a good servant, you won’t know how to be a good master.

A guest should not have to honor his host; a host should honor his guest.

The fool makes ropes out of sand.

Once a word is out of your mouth you can’t swallow it again.

Walk fast and you can overtake misfortune; walk slowly and it will overtake you.

You can measure your cloth twelve times, but cut it only once.

Afraid or not, you will have to face your fate.

Don’t take your own rules when you enter a strange monastery.

Even if Truth is buried in a gold box, it will break out and come to light.

A good reputation sits at home, a bad one runs about town.

In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Presents are cheap, true love is dear.

He who rushes at life dies young.

Love your neighbors but put up a fence.

A kind word now is better than a pie later.

If you never see new things, you can go on enjoying the old.

Which is your favorite?

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Doublets: Your Future is More Important Than Your Past

atkins bookshelf quotations“It isn’t where you came from, it’s where you’re going that counts.”

Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) was one of the most popular American jazz singers for more than half a century, earning the titles “First Lady of Song” and “Queen of Jazz.” During her six-decade career, she won 14 Grammies and selling more than 40 million albums. Fitzgerald came from very humble beginnings — her father was a ditch digger and part-time driver, her mother worked at a laundromat. She was orphaned at the age of 15 and ended up at a reformatory due to truancy and brushes with the police. She escaped and faced the Great Depression, alone and broke. But she found refuge in her music and her incredible voice. She made her debut on amateur night at the famous Apollo Theater in New York City when she was 17.

“No matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, you can make it. That’s an essential promise of America. Where you start should not determine where you end up.” 

From “Remarks by the President at College Opportunity Summit” delivered by Barack Obama (born 1961) on December 4, 2014.

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A Funeral Poem for a Friend

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomThis post is in honor of a dear friend, a former police officer and detective, who lost his 15-month battle to brain cancer this past evening. He endured several critical operations, agonizing pain, and physical impairment in order to spend as much time as he could with his adoring wife and five children. “It’s too early for me to go,” he said to me soon after the dreadful diagnosis. Through it all, he faced it with tremendous strength and courage, knowing that he was never alone — his close-knit family was with him each step of the way. Additionally, he had the support of his friends, law enforcement community, and church community. And he had his faith that guided him through the best of days and the worst of days. He was a kind, generous soul, possessing a contagious sense of humor, and found ample opportunities to make anyone who was around him laugh, even as he struggled with a terminal illness.

I will never forget our last visit a few weeks ago. He was heavily medicated from a recent surgery. We enjoyed a short visit, sharing many happy memories. Because he couldn’t talk, he mostly listened and nodded, opening his eyes from time to time. Before I left, I told him that I loved him and he became alert for the first time — his tired eyes looked up to meet my gaze. He nodded and managed a faint smile. Since he was too weak to speak, he slowly lifted his fingers in the air as if to catch the words that were floating in the air, and then with a slight downward motion of his fingers, pushed those words back to me. It was the last time I would see him alive.

I am reminded of the poem “Miss Me, But Let Me Go” that is often mistakenly attributed to British poet Christina Rossetti. (Rossetti wrote a poem, titled “Remember,” with a slightly different message.) Although the author of “Miss Me, But Let Me Go” is not known, the poet captures so beautifully and so succinctly one of the great lessons of life — losing a friend. The poem reminds us to rejoice that some divine serendipity brings two people together so that they can travel some portion of the long road of life together. The poem also reminds us to rejoice in the memories that were created during that time. Of course, it is difficult to see that clearly through the fog of mourning and tears. Indeed, of all of life’s lessons, letting someone we love go is perhaps one of the most difficult and painful to learn.

Miss Me, But Let Me Go

When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me
I want no rites in a gloom filled room
Why cry for a soul set free?
Miss me a little, but not for long
And not with your head bowed low
Remember the love that once we shared
Miss me, but let me go.
For this is a journey we all must take
And each must go alone.
It’s all part of the master plan
A step on the road to home. When you are lonely and sick at heart
Go to the friends we know.
Laugh at all the things we used to do
Miss me, but let me go.

By Unknown Author

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This I Believe: There is No Limit to What A Democratic Society Can Achieve

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom“A candid statement of faith becomes, for me, a concentrated spiritual autobiography. My fundamental beliefs are the products of three converging influences that have been silently at work within my personality: history, America, and Jefferson.

As a student of history, I have been impressed again and again by man’s potentialities for good and evil. I spent my childhood in Vienna. The atmosphere of the dying Austrian Empire made me sensitive to comparative politics and history. Gradually the conviction grew in me that man everywhere, regardless of race or region or climate, is his own worst enemy or best friend. By and large, human beings themselves create their own heavens or hells. They do so because, of all the creatures on Earth, they alone have the intelligence and imagination to change their environment.

My first American home was Detroit. This great middle-western metropolis, the very essence of 20th century American industrialism, stimulated my imagination. From the inspiring history of America, I have learned what good will, intelligence, and creative application can accomplish. It is one of my beliefs that the opportunities of social and human well being in America are still inexhaustible.

And this brings me to Thomas Jefferson. His influence on my spiritual and intellectual life has been continuous and pervasive. I think I know by now every word he has ever written. I feel inside me the very rhythm of his thought. His life and personality have been, to me, sources of spiritual strength and inspiration. Jefferson never failed me in any crisis.

What I learned from him, in brief, has been an abiding faith in human potentialities. I would call this the ‘religion of democratic humanism.’ Following Jefferson’s optimistic faith, despite examples of horrors and bloodshed in recent times, I believe that man can and should be kind and just to his fellows; that man can and should strive for constant spiritual and social improvement and to keep the avenues of opportunity always open for himself and his fellow men. To state it negatively, I believe with all my heart that cruelty, injustice, and intolerance are social crimes that should be punished as severely as physical ones.

It is a cardinal article of faith with me that there is no limit to what men in society can achieve. In this context, I believe that the good, just, and happy life cannot be accomplished in any society where power, political or economic, is monopolized in the hands of a single person or single group. I hold, with Jefferson, that only inside a democratic society, even if it is imperfect, can human beings make a successful effort to attain happiness. [Emphasis added]

And finally, I believe that all these human goals are attainable by men of all races and creeds; and that, if we use our social intelligence and the ample tools of science, a day will come when there is no bloodshed, hatred, and diseases, and no slums and no poverty, and no destructive fears of the unknown.”

From the 1952 essay “A Shining Day Will Come” by Saul Padover, former dean of the School of Politics at the New School for Social Research (New York), and author of Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson and the National Capital. The essay appears in This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of One Hundred Thoughtful Men and Women edited by Edward Murrow.

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Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke

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For further reading: This I Believe and This I Believe II: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman

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