Apollo 11: The Mindset of An Astronaut

This week we celebrated the 53rd Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. This is sort of a big celebration day for us space nerds and July 20th was lovingly nicknamed "Moon Day" where we are reminded how incredible it is that in 1969, humans walked on another celestial body. Of course, this brings up a lot of feelings of "why haven't we kept up that moment?" and "where are we now?" I like to use this day to reinspire me to keep the fire going to keep us moving forward, regardless of all the negative talk that surrounds Moon Day.

Many of us learn about the Moon Landing in school and Neil Armstrong is a name we at least know in the background of our everyday lives. And almost everyone knows his famous line, which beautifully articulated the magnitude of this moment in the history of our species:

"That's one small step for man... One giant leap for mankind"

This Moon Day I got to have the incredible experience of hopping on a zoom call to watch the footage of the Moon Landing in real time as it happened back in 1969. Neil Armstrong stepped out at about 10:56 PM Eastern time which means at 10:56 PM in 2022, we were reliving that moment. It was a really amazing moment to share with two of my space besties and I hope we continue the tradition every year on Moon Day.

Note: we did this group watch using Apollo In Real Time which shows EVERYTHING (I am talking crew audio transcript, Mission Milestones, Mission Control audio... the whole nine yards) for Apollo 11, 13 and 17. Check it out! www.appolloinrealtime.org

During our watching session, we had a conversation around the very intriguing question of "what was Neil thinking???" as we watched all the events unfold. (If you want to relive this moment on Apollo in Real Time, I recommend starting at 109:22:50)

There were two moments that my friends highlighted to me that I found sparked something in my head about the mindset of astronauts. The first was when Mr. Armstrong was standing on the ladder, waiting to step onto the powdery lunar surface. The second was the surprisingly long pause between his famous one small step line and his next line describing the lunar regolith (aka moon dirt) that he was standing on.


Credit: NASA

Let's first talk about the long, almost 20-second pause Neil took between those famous first words and then to him describing his surroundings. What do you think was going through his head? I don't think any of us will ever know and he himself may have difficulty putting that experience into words. In the video, you can see him adjusting down the ladder and possibly giving a little kick of his boot. In my mind, Armstrong was taking in the new world around him and doing his best to communicate it back to the rest of humanity back on Earth. In reference to my last blog post, I imagine Neil Armstrong having a Moment of Awe in those 20 seconds.

This made me realize how important it is for space explorers to practice living in awe, something I had not realized when I originally wrote that post. The things we will see out in space should challenge our world views and should leave us overwhelmed and in awe. I believe astronauts should be trained in awe and to be present in the moment. And yes, I mean this should be part of their training as we prepare people for space. This will benefit them, as they will gain more out of each experience of awe and they will be prepared on how to not just manage but to truly stand in a Moment of Awe. But it will also benefit all Earthlings as those who venture out will be able to more powerfully communicate their experiences, both emotionally and from a scientific observation standpoint.

The other moment I mentioned was actually just before Mr. Armstrong made history with a single step; when he was still on the ladder getting the go-ahead from Buzz Aldrin and Mission Control that everything was being captured. "What do you think he was feeling at that moment? Waiting on the ladder, so close to the surface." one of my friends posed to the group. Typical words like anxious, excited, nervous, and anticipation immediately floated to everyone's mind. I thought a bit deeper about my experiences here on Earth under stress or getting ready to perform a "mission" (but of course not an actual mission to the magnitude of Neil and Buzz!)

One came to mind that I will be expanding on in the coming months. The short version is I was asked "how do you think you will feel tomorrow?" To which I responded, "I think I will be nervous, and then five minutes before I will get really calm." Lo and behold, that is exactly what happened. I have come to realize this is how I handle my "missions" here on Earth, whether they be presentations and speaking events, performances of skills, my analog mission, or even this mission I am alluding to.

I thought about where this pattern may come from. I have never had training in dealing with nerves nor have I given much thought about that calmness sweeping over me. I have always just trusted the calmness would come when it was time to "get the job done. " After reflection, I believe this side of me stems from my martial arts background.

For those who don't know, I am a third-degree black belt in ITF Taekwondo and have been practicing many forms of martial arts for the last 22 years of my life. From a young age, my instructor taught me the concept of what he dubbed "the Blue Zone" specifically when fighting. This is when your mind and your body act as one and you seem to act within the same moment you think to do something. Many who study Eastern ways see this as a form of Enlightenment when everything flows together. The distractions of the world fall away and you are wholly focused on the fight (or mission) in front of you, while still remaining high hyper-focused on everything happening in the present. It is surprisingly rare and can only be sustained for a matter of seconds, maybe half a minute. I have experienced this a handful of times, the most vivid during a tournament when I was 16 years old and I can tell you this feeling is what so many of us chase.

Now, this is not a sustainable flow. I personally experienced something similar during patterns competition (also known as forms, katas, essentially organized movements) which often lasted longer than a few seconds. This is where I trained my ability to turn my nervous energy into calm, laser-focused actions.  I believe this has translated into many places in my life where I may feel anxious, where I have to perform or "do" something I have been practicing, or when I feel others are relying on me. I no longer worry if I feel nervous or doubt beforehand because I completely trust myself that in the moment I will be able to turn "it" on and do the mission.

I like to think Neil probably felt similar up on that ladder. Of course, that is my own interpretation based on my experience. He probably had some nerves and general anticipation during the months leading up to launch and even the three-day journey to the Moon. But if I am stepping into his moon boots for a second, my guess is on that ladder Neil Armstrong had a similar feeling of cool, trusted calmness wash over him as he waited to get the go-ahead to make history.

NeilArmstrong Ladder

Credit: NASA

I really do think these two areas of being connected to oneself in high-stress situations can make for more powerful and well-rounded space explorers. Most astronauts are known to have "nerves of steel" in their missions. In my mind, that doesn't mean they aren't anxious, it just means when it comes time to do their job, they can enter their own "the Blue Zone" and feel calm, confident, and focused on the mission at hand. The flip side is for those space explorers also experience awe, wonder, and being overwhelmed by everything in their surroundings. Training astronauts to be able to stand in a Moment of Awe with a calm and focused presence can lead to the future in space that we all want to see.

3 thoughts on “Apollo 11: The Mindset of An Astronaut”

  1. Your turn! What do you think Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were thinking as they stepped onto the Moon?

  2. Some extra trivia for you all!
    Neil Armstrong’s famous quote is actually missing a word. It was originally supposed to be “That’s one small step for *a* man, one giant leap for mankind.” But even Neil said he couldn’t hear the intended “a” on the transmission back to Earth.

    One thing I didn’t address in this post is the hot topic of “mankind.” Personally, I understand why it is important to use words such as “humankind” and you can bet moving forward I will be sure my language will mirror my inclusive beliefs. But I also understand the 1960s weren’t thinking about these things as much as they could have and I choose to stand in a moment of understanding, accountability, and a better future.

    1. Awesome trivia and I think Neil and Buzz must have thought about their home and what they would tell everyone!
      Thanks for sharing the Appollo in real time website and your experience of “The Blue Zone” in the context of Taekwondo. Another Awesome blog, Bailey!

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