Only 24 men have traveled to the moon. Just half are still alive.
Their experiences have been told often, in movies and books like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13.”
We know nearly everything about their missions: the risks, the challenges, the triumphs.
But we know little about the astronauts themselves. And even less about how their space experiences changed them, as human beings.
They talk about courage, leadership, patriotism. And also spirituality, God, earth, and the entire universe.
It’s a remarkable book. It’s remarkable too that no one has heard these legends — men like Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders — speak so eloquently about these ideas before.
“No one asked,” Hero — the marvelously named author — replies. For half a century, journalists have focused on the technical aspects of space flight.
But ever since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon — when the New York Times published a special section with quotes from world leaders about how that event would change man’s relationship with the cosmos — Hero has been fascinated by what he calls “the bigger story”: what it means, deep in one’s soul, to walk on or orbit the moon.
Though it’s a vast distance from the earth to the moon, Hero’s long-lived idea got a boost from nearby: his next door neighbor.
Bill Burrows is a noted aviation writer and Pulitzer Prize nominee, for publications like the Times and Wall Street Journal. He does not know any Apollo astronauts personally. But he mentioned the idea to former space shuttle astronaut Tom Jones, who helped Hero send an email blast to his Apollo colleagues.
Bill Anders was the first to respond. On December 24, 1968 he took the astonishing “Earthrise” shot. It’s been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever.”
Anders was intrigued. He invited Hero to his Anacortes, Washington home.
The visit went well. Anders was so impressed with Hero’s approach and questions, he called his fellow Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman. Retired now after stints as White House liaison during the lunar landing and CEO of Eastern Airlines, he told Hero to come see him in Billings, Montana.
That interview went well too. So Borman called Jim Lovell, the 3rd Apollo 8 astronaut, commander of ill-fated Apollo 13, and the first of only 3 men to reach the moon twice.
Lovell gave Hero one of the most astonishing insights in a book filled with them. “We don’t go to heaven when we die,” he thought to himself while orbiting the moon. “We go to heaven when we’re born.”
As one astronaut recommended Hero to another, the project took shape. The author understands how important those personal contacts were.
“These guys get a lot of requests,” he says. “Some of them are in their 90s. They were tired of talking about their missions. They liked the intellectual approach I took.”
Each man asked Hero what he wanted to do that had not been done before. He told them, “I want ‘The Right Stuff 2.0’ — their story from the philosophical, spiritual side.
“They loved that. It’s a function of their age. Soon, the men who walked on the moon will be walking into the history books.”
During their careers, the astronauts had been happy to follow NASA’s directive to not talk much about Big Ideas.
“They didn’t want to appear too ‘intellectual,'” Hero says.
But, he says, “they are very deep thinkers. That separated them out during the selection process, even if no one realized it at the time.”
Hero says that the astronauts take the idea of “the common good” — duty, honor, country — very seriously. “That can sound quaint and outdated — like the ancient Greeks and Romans,” he notes.
But, Hero continues, “once they were in space, and saw the earth from the moon, they saw ‘the common good’ pertaining not just to country, but to humanity, and the planet. They came back to earth as humanitarian citizens.”
There was a lot they never said — at the time.
Anders’ Catholic priest was at Cape Canaveral when Apollo 8 blasted off for the moon. Six days later, he returned to earth an agnostic.
Hero paraphrases the astronaut’s epiphany: “To think that God sits up there with a supercomputer is bunk.”
On the other hand, Jim Irwin — the lunar module pilot for Apollo 15 — “found Jesus while walking on the moon,” Hero says.
Over and over, the astronauts talked to the author about their belief in “someone — or something — greater than oneself. These are very deep thinkers.”
The deepest of all, Hero says, was a man he never got to interview: Neil Armstrong. The first man to walk on the moon died in 2012.
Hero is inspired by the Apollo astronauts. He always knew they were physically brave. But what comes through just as strongly in The Mission of a Lifetime is their moral courage.
Hero’s book should be read by everyone. He is particularly hopeful that it becomes a staple for high school and college students. He wants them to learn about the notion of “the common good.”
Reviews have been excellent. Amazon picked it as a Book of the Month. The Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt. Jane Pauley wants to interview him.
The timing is perfect. July marks the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s one giant leap for mankind.
And after half a century — thanks to Basil Hero — the real story of the Apollo space program has finally been told.