What do you do next when you have walked on the moon at 30? How do you find direction in life when your career his peaked, with the first perfect 10 in Olympic competition, at the age of 14? How do you move on after piloting an aircraft through a crash in which you save hundreds, but a further hundred died?
This week my book No More Worlds to Conquer is launched in the United States and UK. It is made up of interview with 16 people who have had to deal with this question of always being known for a single, iconic moment – sometimes one they worked towards, sometimes one forced upon them – and wondering what to do next.
The idea for the book came from an interview with the marine explorer Don Walsh. History will remember Walsh as the first man (with Jacques Piccard, who has since died) to visit the deepest point in the world’s oceans, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, more than seven miles down, a feat he accomplished in an unwieldy contraption called a bathyscaphe in 1960. Five years ago I tracked him down in Oregon and went to interview him for Discovery Channel Magazine for the 50th anniversary of his voyage.
He was polite enough, narrating the story to the bottom – the very, very bottom, a place less frequently visited by mankind than the moon – with a slightly automatic tone, reflecting a man who had told the story a great many times. And after a while, I asked him: what came next? You were 27 when you did this, you’re approaching 80 now – what did you do to follow that?
And he smiled and relaxed, and said: “Well, a lot of people think I died.”
In fact, he did anything but die: a remarkable life story embracing submarine command and dean-ranked academia, service in two wars and dives on the Bismarck and Titanic, visits to the Arctic and Antarctica so frequent that there is a ridge named after him in Antarctica. But nobody will ever ask him about these things, because his life story is already set: the first man to go to the bottom of the sea.
After that I spent five years seeking out people who were caught in this same position, trapped by the nature of the way we view biography and celebrity. Half of them were members of that post-war generation of Americans doing crazy and inspiring things just to show that they could be done.
Apollo is the most obvious example of this: how can life continue to have any interest or relevance after walking on another world? And the diversity of the answers to that question, to the way the 12 moonwalkers (eight survive today) move on, is enthralling. I interviewed Alan Bean, who quit NASA to focus on his true passion, painting – but has only ever painted one thing, images of the surface of the moon, given texture with a cast of his moonboot and with tiny amounts of moondust from his mission patches mixed into the paint. I talked to Charlie Duke, who found religion, and Ed Mitchell, who did something like the reverse, having his mind so completely blown by a moment of epiphany on the way home from moon, when he realized that he and everyone and everything around him were all made of stardust and so fundamentally connected, the he devoted the rest of his life to a study of consciousness and the quantum world. (He became a true believer in extraterrestrial visitation, too.)
I interviewed two of the crew of Apollo 8, to my mind the most visionary flight of them all, the first people to leave Earth orbit and cross the void, where they orbited the moon 10 times in 1968. They were the first people – the first member of any Earthbound species – to see the Earth as a whole, as a ball, a dab of colour hanging there in the nothing. The world knows Jim Lovell, who went on to greater fame in the near-disaster of Apollo 13, and how now owns a fine dining establishment in the north of Chicago with his son; but less know Bill Anders, who took the famous Earthrise photo (which he generously allowed me to make the cover photo of my book), and who moved on to an exceptional career in business, including a spell at General Dynamics so extraordinary that Harvard has published a case study on it.
People have a range of attitudes to this idea of moving on. One fascinating interviewee was Joe Kittinger, who jumped from the edge of space in 1960 in an experimental spacesuit from an open balloon gondola and set a skydiving record that would stand for 52 years. There is plenty interesting about Kittinger’s later life – Vietnam veteran imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton, the first person to balloon solo across the Atlantic, professional sky-writing pilot – but surely the most intriguing is that when that record was broken, by Felix Baumgartner, it was done with Kittinger’s considerable assistance over a period of years. He devoted enormous effort to removing himself from the record books.
Some don’t feel the slightest need of a sense to move on. Chuck Yeager, whom I interviewed at Edwards Air Force base, where (then called Muroc) he had become the first person to break the sound barrier back in 1947, refused to be drawn on anything as introspective as his place in history or his need to get past it. He, more than anyone else I interviewed, just continued to do the same thing, over and over again: he flew. He flew hundreds of planes, many of them test aircraft, and a number of which turned out not to be able to fly. When I met him at the age of 89, he’d flown a jet at Edwards only the previous year.
Others have far bigger concerns to worry about than sifting through the range of opportunities to see which one will give them meaning. Nadia Comaneci, who scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic competition at the age of 14 in Montreal – then the second, and the third, the first seven in fact – competed again in Moscow in 1980 but then found herself trapped in her native Romania under intense security supervision for years, following the defection of her coach, Bela Karolyi, to the US in 1981. Her task in those years wasn’t to worry about the oddness of young fame, but to get enough food in Ceasescu-era Romania to keep standing up. When she did defect, in 1989, she first had to walk miles in the dark across frozen ground and ponds to Hungary, knowing she and her colleagues would be shot if found; then, having been arrested and given asylum in Hungary, the very next day she scaled seven barbed wire fences to reach Austria, from where she was flown to New York the next day to an unrecognizably different (and not always easy) life. Today, in much happier circumstances, she lives in Norman, Oklahoma, and works with her husband, the US Olympic gymnast Bart Connor.
Some take a total change of life. Ray Wilson was a member of England’s famed World Cup-winning football side in 1966, the nation’s only ever victory in that tournament. But even most Brits have never heard of them, though they could likely name most of the rest of the team. The reason is that Wilson turned his back on the game and became an undertaker in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. One minute, in a stadium with 100,000 people chanting your name; the next, a job where your only working relationship is with the dead or bereaved.
I also interviewed people who did not choose their moment of fame. United 232 is a legendary incident in the commercial aviation community. It was a DC-10 flight that crashed in Sioux City after a total hydraulic failure, a situation so desperate that pilots were not even trained to deal with it, such was the certainty of disaster that came with it. The crew – aided by a training check airman whose job was to devise situations like this for training crews in flight simulators, and who happened to be sitting in the back of the plane as a passenger – defied the odds and got the plane down, saving roughly two thirds of the crew but losing one third. The captain, Al Haynes, has always had to deal with this sense of being both a hero and, as he puts it, someone who failed to do his job to get his passengers safely from A to B. He has spent the rest of his life talking about the tragedy – he has given a presentation on it 1,700 times – while Jan Brown, the chief flight attendant, has spent the subsequent years campaigning for greater safety for infants on aircraft.
All the people I interviewed had had to deal with this sense that the first line of their obituary or Wikipedia entry was already written no matter what else happened in their lives. But it’s encouraging to report that not one of them chose to live in the past, but instead sought to live fulfilling lives right up to their current advancing ages.
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Words by Chris Wright
‘No More Worlds to Conquer’ is published by The Friday Project on 21st May