Everything I Know About Parenting I Learned from the Apollo Program

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Image from Nasa.govImage from Nasa.gov

Image from Nasa.gov

I came into this world at the tail end of NASA’s first attempt leave it. By the time I was reading headlines, the last moonwalk had already taken place, ending the Apollo program. NASA was the Dot Com of that generation, attracting a bunch of young workaholics who put themselves and the politics of a nation to the test. It was with a lot of emotion, therefore, that I was able to experience with my 9-year-old son the re-making of history this past week, courtesy of NASA’s great web site.

The closest I had come to the experience previously was the outstanding 1998 HBO miniseries, “From the Earth to the Moon,” co-produced by Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, and others. Although written as a drama—with the creative license that comes with the genre—these 12 episodes are considered to be an accurate portrayal of what transpired. Here are five moments from this award-winning treatment reminding us about what is involved with supporting our own little missions.

We Drill the Hell Out of Everything

In some alternate reality, it is Gus Grissom—not Neil Armstrong—who takes the first steps on the moon. One of the Mercury 7, he became the first man to return to space and was the commander of the debut Apollo mission. On January 27, 1967, Grissom was sitting in the capsule running tests with two other astronauts. Many things had gone wrong that day, prompting the vet to vent, “How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?” Seconds later, a fire broke out, ending his life.

Commander Frank Borman, one of five astronauts who testified before a Senate committee investigating the Apollo 1 fire, called the disaster a “failure of imagination.” NASA personnel focused on the fire that might burn 180 miles from the nearest fire station, not the one that happens on the ground during a routine test. Correcting the circumstances for the failure was left to people like Pad Leader Guenter Wendt, who instituted new safety routines based on drilling and re-drilling the same procedures.

It is said that for a child to fully comprehend a new bit of information, it has to be heard hundreds of times. Despite curse words appearing to be immune to that rule, it is undeniable that repetition helps kids learn. Repeating instruction strengthens the neural pathways in their brains; seeing and doing reinforce them further. Don’t expect your words to sink in with one or two broadcasts. Patience and persistence are needed to drill information into little kid brains.

You Saved 1968

My favorite episode in FTETTM may be “1968.” Not only is it the year I showed up (ok, I’m biased), but it also covers one of the most volatile periods in U.S. history. The kicker comes toward the end of the episode, when astronaut Michael Collins reads telegrams to the Apollo 8 crew after they became the first Americans to orbit the moon and share breathtaking images of an Earthrise. One telegram, in particular, stood out: “You saved 1968.”

Now in my tenth year of parenting, I am still amazed how small, wondrous moments can offset a long string of horrible ones. Bill collectors, red tape, academic pressures, oppressive heat. They all get canceled out when my five-year-old writes a letter to his future kindergarten teacher, or my nine-year-old hands me an amazing ceramic work for Father’s Day. Sometimes, it only takes a few smiles to save the day.

That’s One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind

President John F. Kennedy believed that this nation should commit itself to putting a man on the Moon. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade,” Kennedy said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Neil Armstrong made his challenge a reality 40 years ago this week, and the culmination of many years of work and sacrifice took the form of a footprint in some moon dust.

Big milestones are encountered only after measuring many inches. We often mark the time we spend with our kids with those big moments—first day of school, getting a driver’s license, graduation—but they are made possible only through the accumulation of many little moments too small to remember. We can make the most of those moments by being present with our kids as we do the mundane things—tying a shoe, brushing teeth, even watching television. There is no way to predict which moment will be the one our children will remember most, or what impact it will have on their ability to take giant leaps later on.

We’d Like You to Stir Up Your Cryotanks

About 56 hours into the Apollo 13 flight, CAPCOM Jack Lousma—upon request of EECOM Sy Liebergot—made a small request of astronaut Jack Swigert: “Stir up your cryotanks.” Moments later, Houston was informed there was a problem, and a previously apathetic America held their collective breath as NASA engineers worked around the clock to bring their three friends safely back to Earth. For parents, there are times when it feels like we just broke our kids. We say something, or don’t say something; Do something, or fail to do something. Bang—instant crisis. However, we can learn two very important lessons by looking at what the NASA engineers contributed to the Apollo 13 rescue.

First, the cryo stir was the catalyst, not the cause. It is easy to look at that moment and second-guess the decision to force it early. The transcript of the actual mission shows a series of small failures were precursor to the big one, however, and the serendipity that led to an explosion at that moment may have made it easier to bring the astronauts home. Second, Liebergot forced himself to focus on the problem, not the failure. By keeping a positive outlook and remaining present in the new problems each phase of the mission brought, the young men of NASA engineered a miracle. As parents, we need to address failures by dealing with the needs of our kids in the context of our long-term goals for them.

It’s Not Like I Get Stopped at Restaurants

The Apollo program lasted until 1972, when Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and Eugene Cernan became the last men to walk on the moon. Schmitt, a geologist and the only non-military astronaut to enjoy a moonwalk, reflected on his Apollo 17 mission by noting that people don’t recognize him in restaurants. Although he may not have commanded Armstrong-esque attention—Schmitt did go on to become a U.S. Senator, though—a cap on his fame doesn’t take away from his contributions, which include finding “the most interesting sample” of moon rock (proving the Moon once had a magnetic field) and taking the most famous picture of Earth, “The Blue Marble.”

Like Schmitt, we parents aren’t in it to be recognized in restaurants. It is a labor of love, filled with many anonymous moments. There are some parents who live vicariously through the achievements of their children, and certainly many feel the behavior of their kids reflects on how others perceive their parenting skills. Being a parent is a humbling experience, though. If we worry too much about what others think of us, we may miss opportunities to shape how our kids feel about themselves.

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