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Down to Earth: What can we learn from high achievers?

They've been to the moon and back or won Olympic gold. But what did those people do next, asks Chris Wright, and what can we possibly learn from them?

Published 22/08/2015

Alan Bean
Alan Bean

Imagine being an Apollo astronaut. Imagine that you are one of the tiny handful of people - 12, in fact, of whom eight are still alive - who has left the Earth, slipped its orbit, and travelled across the void to set foot on another world. And then you come back. For the rest of your life, you will only ever be famous for one moment: it will define you. But you are barely 30 years old. You might have 70 left. What do you do to find meaning in the rest of your life when its defining moment has already happened?

The Apollo astronauts offer a useful snapshot of the challenge of moving on, because they tended to do so in strikingly different ways.

Take Alan Bean, an effervescent Texan who visited the Ocean of Storms on Apollo 12 in November 1969. After Nasa he decided to redirect his life towards his true passion: art. But here's the thing. In all the subsequent years, Bean has only ever painted one thing: the surface of the Moon.

A Bean painting is quite a thing. In addition to its mesmerising subject matter, it is rendered unlike the work of any other artist by the tools he uses. He has an embossed cast of his moonboot, which he uses to provide texture to his paintings, along with the hammer he used on his mission; and he uses moondust, taken from his mission patches, when he mixes his paint. Gimmick or artistry, it has resulted in his paintings selling for several hundred thousand dollars apiece.

Charlie Duke, who walked on the Moon in 1972 on Apollo 16, suffered a profound sense of anticlimax afterwards. "After Apollo, that drive that took me to the Moon was inside, that focus that we had, the energy that we had. And it was: now what are you going to do?" He entered business, founding a beverage distributorship for Coors in San Antonio, but it wasn't enough. "I began to think: is that all there is to this?"

And so he found faith. "The spiritual side didn't take over so much that I lost my desire for adventure: I still fly airplanes, but I see life as more a one-time adventure. I'm pleased that what happened to me was so significant and I'm delighted that God has been able to use that in my life, to bring me a peace and a purpose in life."

You might say Ed Mitchell, who went to the Moon on Apollo 14 in 1971, reached the opposite conclusion after a life-changing moment on the voyage home during which his mind was blown. Looking out through the porthole as the Earth, Moon and Sun came into view he came to a realisation. "I knew that the star systems were what manufactured the molecules that make up our bodies. So all matter is made of star systems. We're all stardust. We're all the same stuff. And that was a big wow."

Some are irritated by their mark in fame. Bill Anders was on the crew of Apollo 8, one of the truly visionary endeavours humans have ever undertaken. This was the first mission to leave Earth orbit and travel to another world, circling the Moon 10 times in 1968.While there, he took the photo that we now know as Earthrise, said to be the most frequently reproduced image in history.

But he eschews the whole astronaut-celebrity thing, and refuses to sign autographs any more. Instead, he granted an interview only because it gave him the chance to talk about things that weren't Apollo. And why not: his was an exemplary career in big business, culminating with a spell as turnaround chief executive of General Dynamics. He was running America's nuclear energy at 40, and found the time to be ambassador to Norway along the way. "For me," he says, "the business side of things is the bigger achievement than Apollo."

Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic competition at the Montreal Games in 1976, aged just 14. Then she got the second. And the third. The first seven, in fact, in the space of three days, all before reaching puberty. And although she did win further medals four years later in Moscow, her time in Montreal, professionally speaking, was the peak: all downhill from there, less than halfway through her teens, still a child. When she got off the plane back to Bucharest, to be greeted by Nicolae Ceausescu and a national celebration, her eyes were red from crying, because she had been carrying a doll but had lost it.

What next? "Waking up, having breakfast, going to school, going to the gym. That's how I see it," she says.

"I couldn't see anything else I could do that would be meaningful." Retiring from professional competition at the age of 20, she had to return to the increasingly miserable mainstream life in Ceausescu's Romania, a situation so desperate and deprived that she defected in 1989.

Today, altogether more peaceful, she lives in Norman, Oklahoma, and is involved in a gymnastics academy with her husband and fellow Olympiad Bart Connor.

Writing my book, No More Worlds to Conquer, I sought out 16 people who would forever be known for just one thing, good or bad, and asked how they moved on from it, from the sound barrier-breaking aviator Chuck Yeager to the former Lebanon hostage John McCarthy, from I Will Survive singer Gloria Gaynor to the surviving crew of the notorious United 232 air disaster.

What can one learn from all this? Partly, what one might expect: that there is a fundamental richness to life that stops it ever truly being defined by a moment or ordeal, and that the best of us don't dwell on those moments any more than is healthy, but instead look to move forward, and to find new things to be inspired and affected by.

No More Worlds to Conquer is published by The Friday Project, a HarperCollins imprint

Belfast Telegraph

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