Monday, September 24, 2012

This Is Going To Be a Good Day Charlie: Taking a Cue from the Astronauts

“This is going to be a good day, Charlie.”
Astronaut John Young said this to Charlie Duke while walking on the moon in April 1972.
I heard it a few weeks ago while watching an episode of the documentary “When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions."
Although Neil Armstrong had been in the news more, it was John Young’s phrase spoken during an Apollo 16 EVA that stuck in my head.
It wasn’t going to be a “super-duper” day or a “really dangerous” one.  It was going to be good. And with the force behind the voice—so confident and direct and undaunted by the exceptional situation at hand—one imaged it was.
I’ve developed a new fascination with the men on the moon.  It started with the news of Armstrong and an interest in revisiting what I had clearly never really learned about Apollo 11. But soon I found myself at a science center buying a book on the Original Seven, and then renting "The Right Stuff".  And deciding I’d never find my paperback from Mr. Warren’s high school English class, I ordered a new copy of Tom Wolfe’s classic.
If it’s fair to say our era is one in which information has replaced knowledge, these books and documentaries are about a process that stands in contrast.  Success came step-by-step with each mission developing levels of understanding that moved the next mission closer to a goal. And there’s the overwhelming display of competency and cool headed assessment and acceptance of risk.
That righteous right stuff.
Jim Lovell, speaking about heading up in Apollo 13 in the documentary said, “You know you’re sort of relaxed because there’re two things that are going to happen. Either it’s going to go as planned or something is going to go wrong.”
While I may have liked Young’s “This is going to be a good day Charlie,” comment delivered more than 200,000 miles from earth, he got more attention when he commanded the first Space Shuttle. His competent but less experienced crew member’s heart raced to 130 at lift off, while his stayed well lower. And yet, he said, "Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world knowing they're going to light the bottom-and doesn't get a little worried--does not fully understand the situation."
 A person, especially one who doesn’t even like elevators, might ask, how did he and others remain calm?
An article by psychologist Stephen Benedict-Mason published in Psychology Today touched on part of an answer.
People who can remain cool when blasting off into space have a cerebral cortex that limits the amount of information their brains process during a launch. They are keenly aware of everything that needs to be monitored but all extraneous information, such as the myriad of things that might go wrong, are filtered out. Where the average person would experience sensory overload and panic, the professional pilot attends only to what is absolutely necessary.”
It is something deep and out of reach for my constitution. But I decided to let a tiny bit of astronaut mojo influence my interaction with my oldest.
The first day of second grade was approaching and she’d expressed a few worries about finding her class and making friends.
I said, “Listen kid. We’re going hook you up to a preclass simulator and I’m gonna toss some curve balls at you: a late teacher, fire drill, malfunctioning locker. Meanwhile, I’ll have your vitals monitored for any rise in heart rate or blood pressure.”
Not exactly.
I talked her through the day. I drew a map. I named all the kids in her class. We thought of a few buddies. I moved a bit away from my inclination to overprotect and a bit more towards preparation, game plan, and back-up plans.
Then when the time came I walked her down the hall and said what I’d rehearsed. 
“This is going to be a good day,Charlie.”
Except I didn’t call her Charlie.

Photo of John Young on the moon. Credit:

1 comment:

Tim Morrissey said...

Great post, Sarah. Those of us "of a certain age" who grew up with the space program will always stand in awe of their accomplishments. And - Tom Wolfe's book (The Right Stuff) is one of the few written on the topic of test pilots and aviators-who-became-astronauts that translated so well into a movie.