The Greening of the Astronauts

What are astronauts?
What am I?
Hero, pilot, explorer in love
With myself and with my work.
Unheeding the many dangers that lurk
In outer space or here on earth,
I accept all as due my birth.

- Al Worden.

Before Apollo 15 carried him to the Moon in July 1971, Astronaut Worden been particularly introspective. Poetry had had no place in his life; he rarely read any, and he had never written a line. But something happened to Worden as he orbited the Moon alone in the command ship Endeavor while his crewmates explored the lunar surface. Since his return, he has been moved to put his feelings about space flight into verse, some of it deeply personal and soul searching. Worden’s new interest is only one example of an extraordinary post-flight phenomenon. In spite of their undeserved reputation as unemotional automatons, many of space travelers have been profoundly moved by their experiences away from Earth. In some cases, they have returned to begin entirely different lives. Says Apollo 9 Astronaut Rusty Schweickart: “I am not the same man. None of us are.”

Deeply moved

Schweickart himself is a striking example of what might be called the Lunar Effect. Before the flight he was totally committed to his life as an astronaut. But as floated outside Apollo 9 on his space walk 160 miles above the planet Earth, he was overwhelmed by emotion. “I completely lost my identity sweeping past me below.” Now he spends long hours at a Houston clinic for drug addicts, takes part in a volunteer telephone-counseling service for troubles youngsters, and is involved in a local chapter of practitioners of transcendental meditation.
“Something happens to you out there”, explains Apollo 14 Astronaut Ed Mitchell. As a result of what happened to him, he quit the space program, divorced his wife and begun to devote himself full-time to an unlikely pursuit for an M.I.T. graduate: research into extrasensory perception (ESP), which he felt might help people round the world to achieve greater “intuitive: communication.

Walking on the Moon was a religious experience for Apollo 15 Astronaut Jim Irwin, who was “deeply moved by the beauty of the lunar mountains and felt the presence of God”. A month after his return, he said: “I knew that God had called me to his service”. He quit the astronaut program, dubbed himself the “Moon missionary”, and became a lay preacher on the Southern Baptist evangelic circuit.

While he was peering out of the hatch of Apollo 16 onto the lunar landscape, Charles Duke recalled, “I was overwhelmed by the certainty that what I was witnessing was part of the universality of God”. When he looked at his fresh footprints in the almost ageless lunar dust, “I was choked up. Tears came. It was the most deeply moving experience of my life.” Even the sometimes brittle Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space, admitted that he had changed: “I was a rotten s.o.b. before I left. Now I’m just a s.o.b.”

The deepest emotions in space seem to have involved man’s home planet. Says Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon who later became a professor of engineering at the University of Cincinnati:” I remember on the trip home on Apollo 11 it suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.

The Apollo 8’s Bill Anders, seeing the Earth from out there evoked “feelings about humanity and human needs that I never had before.” Tom Stafford, a veteran of the Gemini 6 and 9 and Apollo 10 flights, puts it more strongly: “You don’t look down at the world as an American but as a human being”. Other astronauts found the isolation of space exhilarating even when they were behind the Moon, out of touch with the Earth. Michael Collins was actually delighted to be left behind in the Apollo 11 command ship after Armstrong and Aldrin departed for their moon walk: “I knew I was alone in a way that no earthling had ever been before.”

Seen from space the distant Earth turned the thoughts of many astronauts to environmental problems. “I wondered how everyone is going to live on that small, crowded globe,” recalled John Young of Apollo 10 and 16. Even during the tense hours after the explosion of an oxygen tank, Apollo’s 13 Jack Swigert found himself concerned with the terrestrial environment – and suddenly certain about how to preserve it: “I became convinced that space technology – earth-resources, satellites, solar-energy generators, global communication networks and the like – is the answer to the environmental disasters that threaten this fragile Earth”.


Some astronauts were less affected by their trips in space than by acclaim afterword. When he returned from the first lunar landing, Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s moon walking companion, found himself totally unequipped to play the hero’s role during the countless public appearances required of him. Soon he was on his way to what he later called “a good old-fashioned American nervous break-down”. In contrast, other astronauts seem to have taken full advantage of the acclaim: John Glenn made a run for the US Senate in Ohio, Wally Schirra appeared as a commentator and in commercials on television, Frank Borman took over a vice-presidency at Eastern Airlines, Al Shepard has made lucrative connections with Houston’s business community, and the list goes on and on… In fact, once the glow of fame wears off, some astronauts have found it painful to slip back into anonymity. “You know, the honeys stop doing handstands when you walk into a rooms, that sort of thing”, said once Mike Collins, who was personally pleased to be free of that artificial life-style. Pete Conrad, Apollo 12’s ebullient commander added: “Who is a bigger bore than a former college football player who bends your ears about all those touch-downs he scored?”

Though the impact of their experience varies widely, most astronauts agree that there is an inevitable, universal consequence of space flight, perhaps best expressed by Ed Mitchell: “You develop an instant global conciseness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world and a compulsion to do something about it.” If that is a significant effect of space flight, and if it can be conveyed successfully to the people of the world, the pay-off from Apollo may be inestimably richer than anyone anticipated.

landing module

Lunar Landing Module. Illustration: Megan Jorgensen