Why do you admire astronauts (if you do)?

Inspired by the “national treasure” thread, in which several Americans identified the Apollo astronauts as major national heroes. I didn’t want to threadshit, and I certainly don’t have anything in particular against astronauts, but I don’t really see why they would come up when you think about “national treasures”.

Sure, they did difficult and dangerous jobs well, but lots of other people do that. And certainly the race to the moon produced a lot of valuable technological breakthroughs, but (a) massive government expenditure in other kinds of research could have done that, too, and (b) that’s not really directly related to any personal qualities of the astronauts.

I was too young to experience it directly, but it seems like the Space Race was to a great extent an instrument of Cold War propaganda, demonstrating the technological superiority of the West. I can see how people at the time might have been swayed by this to think that getting to the moon before the Russkies was some critically important national interest, but in retrospect it clearly wasn’t (unless you want to argue some direct connection between the moon landing and the collapse of the USSR twenty years later). We got to the moon, took some rocks home, and life went on.

So why do these people still have such a grip on the mythic imaginations of (some) Americans?

Have you seen the movie The Right Stuff? The astronauts of the time were basically rock stars. The ideal that parents wanted there kids to be. The country was captivated by the space race with the Russians, it was a civilized battlefield of sorts and the astronauts were literally knights in shining armor going out to battle the enemy with our brain power vs there’s. Propaganda you say? You bet it was.

Our technology kicked there ass and launched us into an era that the Russians couldn’t keep up with.

My grandfather was a factory worker and contributed (in a small way) to the space program. Some of his handiwork sits on the moon as we speak, so I always had a family connection to the Apollo years. But nobody in my family had anything else much to do with it, and it wasn’t until I read the wonderful Andrew Chaikin book A Man on the Moon that I became fascinated by how we got to the moon, and what we did there.

The astronauts from those days were… people. They were highly skilled pilots and engineers, and they mostly did well learning and performing the necessary scientific tasks. But they had their share of failed marriages, wacky ideas (look up Apollo 15’s Jim Irwin) and other difficulties (Buzz Aldrin certainly had his share).

But they had unique experiences which won’t even be duplicated when we eventually return people to the moon. Apollo was of a time, it was done with limited technology and considerable risk. The astronauts’ stories are fascinating. I often implore people to read about Neil Armstrong’s earlier career. His lunar landing was certainly great, but go dig into his performance on Gemini 8 or the time he had to eject from a lunar training vehicle. Incredible skill and discipline.

Reading about them, and later space travelers, inspired me and today I fly airplanes for a living. I applied to NASA some years ago, but my services were sadly not required. :slight_smile:

I think part of it might be their rarity. Firefighters perform heroic deeds, but there are hundreds of thousands of them in the US, with tens of thousands of newbies joining the club every year. But there have only ever been 24 Apollo astronauts. They may not have saved any lives or property, but collectively they are the face of one of humankind’s boldest and most profound technological achievements. No human being has ever been farther from home than they have; no one else has ever walked on another world. Not before, and not in the 50 years since.

I hesitate to call them heroes, but “national treasure” is maybe not far off the mark.

As others have said, read some astronaut biographies. While even modern day U.S. astronauts have pretty impressive biographies, the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo program astronauts have astounding ones. Many were decorated military veterans, almost all were some of the best aviators of their generation, they had advanced technical degrees (several had PhDs in complex and difficult fields of study.) On top of that the spots in these programs were incredibly coveted by the best of the best, so the guys who actually were selected were frankly some of the best people we had in the whole country in terms of these sorts of skills. They had to have almost inhuman self-control of their emotions, strong intellect, peak physical and emotional conditioning. Buzz Aldrin has actually said he thinks at least some of his later struggles with addiction and other issues tie in to how they were trained to suppress emotion while in the Apollo program, because NASA wanted cool operators. It ends up at least some people doing that for extended periods of time may fuck with your head a bit.

On top of that they were doing something amazing. Literally no one cared about the stuff you said in your long screed about Cold War and propaganda. What people cared about is a human was going to walk on the fucking moon, something that seemed hilariously impossible for most of the lifetimes of those who sat and watched it live in 1969. People who were raised in the era when that achievement was a fait accompli have not really seen its like–a live stream of someone doing something that would have been widely considered impossible for most of your life, and that was seemingly achieved in very rapid progression. There are technobabble and engineering reasons as to why this all came together, but the American public was not interested in that, what they saw was a country that was seemingly exposed and afraid by the launch of Sputnik land humans on the moon a little over a decade later.

Most of the astronauts of this era also avoided serious scandals, nasty partisan political behaviors and etc–even the couple that went into politics tended to be centrist types. They were easy figures for essentially everyone to appreciate.

Something else to add to that, about the time in history. I’m 63 now, and when I was born, air travel was not at all uncommon, jet engines existed and the space race had started.

If I was 63 while watching Apollo 11, I would have been born three years after the Wright brothers’ first flight.

I think there’s probably a lot to your point that it’s hard for someone who wasn’t there, even those of us who were babies at the time, to imagine how big a deal it was.

Otherwise, though, you might want to make up your mind about whether the Cold War had anything to do with it or not.

Literally no one cared about the stuff you said in your long screed about Cold War and propaganda. What people cared about is a human was going to walk on the fucking moon

a country that was seemingly exposed and afraid by the launch of Sputnik land humans on the moon a little over a decade later.

I wonder if the lasting impression was also due to providing Americans a moment of national unity during an overall highly divisive era; as you allude to, they have consistently been responsible about their roles and haven’t generally used their fame as a platform for their personal opinions. (Weird to think that twenty or even ten years ago, Rudy Giuliani might have come up in a “national treasure” thread!)

You might want to learn how to use the quote function instead of repasting my words in line as your own.

That being said, what I specifically meant is basically no one gave two shits about critiques like yours, that it was all a “propaganda stunt.” People believed it was a big deal and important. Whether or not it actually was a propaganda stunt isn’t remotely relevant to anything.

Perception has almost nothing to do with reality.

That’s true, but that’s also a good reason that it’s NASA engineers and project managers who should be celebrated as heroes. The astronauts were celebrated because they were the visible face of the space program, but for most of the duration of most of their missions they were little more than passengers.

The astronauts were certainly brave and willing to risk their lives in dangerous missions, but so are hundreds of thousands or millions of people every single day. The main reason to admire them is simply because of the selection process they went through – astronaut applicants get every physical, psychological, and intellectual test known to man thrown at them, and the ones actually selected to be astronauts are the best of the best in a very tough competition. And their experiences in space or on the moon were certainly awesome and unique and of great interest, but in terms of real accomplishment, I’ll say again that it was the engineers who were the real heroes.

Alright, I edited the quotes in, smartypants.

And the rest of that post I think gets to the heart of my puzzlement. Obviously, people believed it was a big deal. And although I wouldn’t phrase it quite so pessimistically, perception and reality are often misaligned. But usually, as time goes by, they come to align somewhat more closely.

At about the same period of time, many Americans believed that what form of government Vietnam had was a big, important deal. They believed that long hair on men and pants on women were big, important deals. I’m not even going to get into the racism of the times. But most Americans have revised their opinions on those issues in retrospect.

I think the Space Race was generally a positive thing and I’m certainly not trying to compare it to the Vietnam War or Jim Crow. I get that, at the time, people were terrified by Sputnik, but it actually didn’t pose any particular threat to them. And it would have been a big morale blow if the Soviets had gotten to the moon first, but it wouldn’t actually have changed the long-term factors which led to their society’s collapse, any more than the Communist win in Vietnam a few years later did.

The massive investment in scientific research had many auxiliary benefits, so the money certainly wasn’t “wasted”, but manned space travel itself didn’t turn out to be of any practical use to humanity. We’re not appreciably closer to colonizing or even mining other parts of the solar system than we were fifty years ago.

In retrospect, it seems very clear to me that it just wasn’t nearly as big a deal as it seemed to be at the time. I am puzzled by the general lack of this historical perspective.

The space program and the astronauts were (along with Star Trek!) the reason I and many others became an engineer. The goal of the space program was not to colonize space as the OP seems to think, it was to get a man on the moon within a 10 year period. The man was the mission, a national goal that was achieved in a time when our country was facing great divides.

The engineers who worked on the program knew the man was the mission and worked to make sure he got there safely. When three astronauts were burned alive on the launch pad the engineering community was hit hard. When Apollo 13 looked like it may not make it back the engineers gave their all to make sure they had a chance to make it back. The engineers on the program valued the astronauts more than anything else, they were the mission and that’s the reason people hold them in high regard. The astronauts success was the engineers success.

If the OP chooses to poo poo one of the greatest achievements of mankind he is free to do so, but I believe he is in the minority.

Humans have an inherent psychological need to have heroes. Where would you have us find them? Astronauts are a lot better choice as heroes than sports stars or entertainers, and they’re a heck of a lot better than soldiers.

Actually, it did. If you can put a satellite into orbit, you can put a bomb anywhere on earth.

Pretty much what I was going to say. They’re genuinely good role models across multiple axes. It’s almost unheard of anywhere else to have people that are simultaneously PhDs, in near-perfect physical shape, emotionally stable, and brave enough to go to the moon. They have enough positive attributes to satisfy almost anyone.

And while I think everyone that is interested in the space program has great respect for the scientists and engineers involved (see the positive reception of the Apollo 13 movie), the astronauts are the public face of the rest of the organization. They’re a proxy for the entire mission.

I think it has stood the test of time because it was a big deal, it was a huge human achievement. It isn’t necessarily the case that just because it didn’t directly lead to any major new direction for science or human lunar colonization or etc that it wasn’t a big achievement. The pyramids were a human achievement too, for example, and were functionally pointless. One doesn’t preclude the other.

And see, this is what I’m talking about. I’ve said that I have the greatest respect for the astronauts and that I think the moon landing was a worthwhile accomplishment. Yet to some people anything the slightest bit short of drooling, starry eyed hero worship is “poo pooing”. They sound like fourteen year olds defending their favorite pop group from criticism.

Also, I’m realizing from the number of people in this tiny sample size who have cited the astronauts as inspiration for their personal career choice that this attitude is probably a whole lot more prevalent on the SDMB than it is in society as a whole.

Highly debatable. If they had been born 25 years earlier, they probably would have been fighter pilots and their courage and skills would have produced dead Nazis instead of a rock collection.

The Tesla long-range fighter aircraft. Used by Bezos himself to intercept and shoot down a airliner carrying union organizers, Yamamoto-style.

Colonizing or monetizing the solar system will be the result of many ‘big deal’ events, of which the Moon landings are but one. We transported humans off of our planet, onto another celestial body, let them walk around there, and got them back. The fact that the Moon isn’t a particularly interesting celestial body or that space travel didn’t quickly become as ho hum as air travel doesn’t diminish the achievement.

Frankly, the fact that space travel took another 50 years to become something a select few tourists could participate in should highlight just how huge an achievement it actually was.

All the Apollo astronauts (except 1) were fighter pilots.