The day I met an astronaut

By Graham Braithwaite - January 19, 2021

One of the great privileges of my role...

Being asked to speak at conferences and seminars is one of the great privileges of my role - the CHC Safety and Quality Summit is a great example.

The annual event started out as a one-off internal company training event for 35 staff and evolved, firstly to include customers and subsequently competitors. By the time the event reached its tenth anniversary in 2014, annual attendance was up to 800. The company strongly believed that when it came to safety, there should be no competitors and that openness to the topic was pivotal to progress.

Back in 2010, the then Vice President for Safety and Quality, Greg Whyte invited me to be a keynote speaker. Greg’s passion for safety gave the event much of its energy. His ability to recruit speakers was legendary and 2010 was no exception because alongside Major Tony Kern and I, was to be Captain Eugene ‘Gene’ Cernan. (I have long since come to terms with the fact that although there were three keynote speakers, no-one would remember that Tony and I were there alongside Gene!)

I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t really know a lot about Gene before that day. Whilst I was broadly aware of the awesome accomplishments of the astronauts in the Gemini and Apollo programmes, like many people, I only knew of a handful of names. I am not sure that I even knew that only 12 men have ever walked on the moon.

Gene

The theme of the Summit was ‘creating a corporate culture of compliance’ and Gene was set the task of talking about professionalism. I will be completely honest and say the first 10-15 minutes was absolutely fine. Not stunning and certainly not bad, but ‘fine’. Then Gene stopped for a moment, leant on the lectern and said...

“Hey, do you want to know what it’s like to go to the moon?”

Who wouldn’t?

In fact, when I thought about it, could you imagine coming back from a conference where the last man to walk on the moon had spoken and when people asked what he had said about it, the answer had been “he didn’t mention it!”.

Gene felt very humble about having had the privilege of going into space and felt it was his obligation to share his experience with as many people as he could. He was humorous and self-aware. At one point he said (with a smile) “people think that we had to be arrogant to be Apollo astronauts. I don’t think we were, but we did think we were better pilots than most people – we needed to be!”

As he described the training they did and the risks they had faced, the audience was increasingly awestruck. For example, he shared the story of the spacewalk he completed as part of the Gemini 9 mission. He was only the second American and third person to complete a spacewalk and although it was planned to last nearly two and a half hours, it needed to be cut short because he was having to work four or five time harder than expected. Re-entering the capsule proved particularly difficult and with exhaustion building, Gene faced ‘one last chance’ to open the door or be faced with the unimaginable decision to be abandoned in space. The astronauts were all too aware of the risk of death both in training and whilst on missions -

The desire to explore the boundaries of science, engineering and human endurance kept them going.

NASA

The presentation was absolutely fascinating, and the audience captivated. You can read many of his stories in his book ‘Last Man on the Moon’ which he wrote with Don Davis and which I can strongly recommend. As Commander of Apollo 17, he was well aware that it could be last mission to land on the moon for some time and his fellow astronauts reminded him that following Neil Armstrong’s immortal words as the first man on the moon, he needed something special. NASA record the last words on the moon as “We leave as we came, and God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind." Gene tells a great story about what he said next before hitting the ignition switch, but I will leave that for the book.

As a safety professional, I was especially struck by one of the things that Gene said. Following his career as an astronaut, his love of flying continued. Gene’s status meant that he was offered the opportunity to fly all sorts of aircraft from helicopters to fast jets. Each time he did, he would ask for feedback on his flying, knowing that as a first attempt to fly a particular aircraft, he would be far from perfect. He started to realise that he wasn’t being given feedback. Instead, people would tell the famous astronaut that he was ‘perfect’ or ‘great’. Gene knew he couldn’t have been and eventually he stopped taking up the offers for fear that no-one dared to suggest areas of improvement and that this was a safety risk.

After the keynote addresses, all of the conference speakers are gathered together for lunch. The idea is to brief everyone ahead of the many valuable workshop sessions that are the real magic of the Summit’s format. There was a ‘reserved’ table which we all avoided in due deference to our VIP guest. Then Greg arrived and tapped me on the shoulder to point out that Gene was sat by himself on the VIP table and would I go and sit there with him so he wasn’t lonely?

Really? I couldn’t believe my luck.

I told myself not be to star-struck by the starman.

I needn’t have worried; Gene was more than happy to have a chat. He was both interesting to listen to and interested in others. His down to earth nature was wonderful, especially for someone who had done so many amazing things.

As lunch was coming to a close, Gene told me that Cranfield University was somewhere he never got the chance to visit. Apparently, whilst in the US Navy, he had been selected to study at Cranfield, but whilst he was waiting for the academic year to begin, NASA advertised for a second round of astronauts and he applied. The rest is history, but I think he must surely be our most famous non-alumnus!

 

Find out more about Transport Systems at Cranfield.

Images accredited to National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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