Growing up in the 1960s meant idolizing United States astronauts. In elementary school, we made scrapbooks of the Mercury 7 in their silver spacesuits. We cheered John Glenn’s dangerous orbit around the Earth. And we cried when Apollo 1 caught fire and killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.
In 1969, I stayed up past my bedtime to watch TV coverage of Apollo 11’s moon landing. I stared in wonder at the screen, even though the image of the lunar module on a rocky surface was just an artist’s rendition.
Despite my fascination with the space program, I never dreamed of being an astronaut myself. Those were daredevils who had the right stuff, as author Tom Wolfe memorably put it. They were calm under pressure 200,000 miles from Earth. Me, I’m afraid of heights, among other phobias. I’m still infamous in the Madison area for climbing the steps to the high dive at the Shorewood Hills swimming pool, freaking out and then climbing back down again. Everyone waiting behind me also had to climb down to make way for the coward.
No, I couldn’t see myself in a silver spacesuit. Being a hero was for the likes of John Glenn and Gus Grissom, not me.
As a kid obsessing on the space program, I gave no thought to where the astronauts came from. All I cared about is that they were true-blue Americans. So imagine my surprise when I learned that the great Jim Lovell is from Dairyland. He’d grown up in Milwaukee and graduated from Juneau High School. Last winter, he gave the commencement speech at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he’d been a student in the 1940s.
Lovell is one of the space program’s all-time heroes. He set an endurance record as the pilot of Gemini 7. He was among the first astronauts to orbit the moon in Apollo 8. And, most famously, he maneuvered Apollo 13 to a successful splashdown after a near-fatal malfunction.
In his UW speech, Lovell didn’t brag about these amazing achievements. Instead, he urged the graduates to venture into unknown territory themselves. He compared it to searching for letters that exist outside the traditional alphabet.
“The future is up to you,” he said. “Just look beyond ‘Z’.”
It was thrilling to hear these words from a Wisconsin native. They suggest that our state isn’t only a place a place where people make cheese; it’s also a place where people go beyond Z. Just knowing that Jim Lovell is a fellow Badger gives me the courage to try extraordinary things myself.
To be honest, I probably won’t join the United States space program. But maybe I’ll work up the nerve to jump off the high dive at the swimming pool. It’d be my own personal splashdown, and who knows what heroic feats I might accomplish after that.