From Bookworm to Spacewalker: How Books Helped Make Me an Astronaut
I’m not sure how I –being a 56-year old retired astronaut– would survive as a young person in today’s ever-changing world. As a teen, options for occupying my time were much less varied than they are now. We simply played every sport imaginable, usually outside. We watched very little TV –after all, we only had three channels. Video games were almost non-existent. But we did have books, and boy howdy, did I love to read!
Books were a staple in my family; at least for my mom and me. It was rare that I didn’t see her — romance novel in hand and curled up at night in her favorite chair– engulfed in the fictional worlds bound tightly within the curling pages of her chosen paperback. It was the same for me, but I cherished a different genre.
Their names were Frank and Joe. Their father Fenton, a high profile detective for the Bayport Police, was an oft-ineffective gatekeeper for keeping his “Hardy Boys” from involvement in his criminal cases. They were living a life I could only dream of. No, they weren’t astronauts… not even close, but they were handsome, smart, athletic, and brave, and they represented everything I thought was cool back then. I reveled in their ability to follow clues and outwit adult criminal masterminds, while skirting the clutches of danger at every turn. They were popular, with strikingly (at least by virtue of the words that described them) beautiful girlfriends who, even in the midst of a dangerous case, found time to lead their high school football team to victory. They embodied American ideals of masculinity and boyhood, exhibited strong family relationships, and gave me hope in my ever-present desire of good to triumph over evil. I was enamored with the life of the Hardy Boys. Every new book opened doors to another fantastic adventure, and they would solve them all… with nary a scratch.
Brains Benton was different. Christened with the name of Barclay (much akin to my middle name of Conrad when it comes to non-cool monikers) he assumed an astronaut-like call sign of “X,” with his best friend James “Jimmy” Carson standing ably at his side as “Operative Three.” Together they formed the “Benton and Carson International Detective Agency.”
But theirs was a different lifestyle. Much more akin to mine –that of a small town boy from Ashland, Nebraska—Brains and Jimmy seemed, by and large, normal. Perhaps the only discrepancy with that premise was the fact Brains was a genius and had a really cool secret laboratory in his Mom’s basement! Sadly, I guess I was more Jimmy than Brains.
Yet overall, they were just like me. They rode bicycles and Jimmy delivered newspapers. They were bored in school. And they both played baseball! Brains was the pitcher, his analytical mind constantly trying to figure out new and better ways to “spin” his vicious curveball. And, more often than not, it was Jimmy who did most of the stumbling and grunt work, taking directions from “X” while finding himself in predicaments for which only Brains’ ingenious mind could find the remedy. Man I loved my teenage years.
As a college student, my reading interests remained strong, but they took a turn to new genres. Gone were the dynamic mystery solvers of my youth, as I turned to autobiographies, replacing Frank, Joe, Brains and Jimmy with real-life sports heroes. It was here –in the lives of Wilt, Kareem, Pistol Pete, Tarkenton, and Ripken-– I would discover a world I could never have. These were big-time professional athletes, telling their stories of last-second victories, winning streaks reaching double-digits, and unbelievable sexual escapades that made me blush.
But they all had one thing in common. They empowered me to dream. With the turn of each page, I became deeply ensconced in a world that seemed unattainable in small-town Nebraska. The assimilation of the stories contained within each chapter gave me confidence, as I learned new ways of thinking and how to apply my own personal experiences in tough situations.
And, as an aspiring astronaut, I would need it all.
I would need the passion exhibited by these young sleuths and established athletes. I would need their perseverance, as they searched endlessly for new clues or pushed to overcome an unexpected injury. I would need their unparalleled confidence, exhibited without hesitation through their willingness to lead in the face of danger or defy a fast-moving clock at the end of a must-win game.
For me, it was about living a dream. Just as I was immersed in the fictional and real-life stories of the books I loved, I was also fully engaged in the pursuit of a nearly impossible dream; a dream I would one day capture with my selection as a United States Astronaut.
Reviewing the immortal words of Dr. Seuss:
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go,”
it is easy to see how reading books lends understanding to the idea that if you just add a little extra to ordinary, you can be extraordinary. Heck… you can even be an astronaut!
The image used at the beginning of this post features Clayton Anderson as a child and is copyright of the author.