Are Astronauts Heroes?

In the 40th anniversary coverage of the moon landing, we will undoubtedly hear the word "heroes" used ... more than once ... to describe the astronauts who performed those early space flights. But are they, or were they, really heroes? With the splashy sensationalism of 24-hour television coverage, the term "hero" has become so overused that it's all but lost its once-significant meaning. Not that there aren't true heroes still in the world. But it was interesting to read a statement by Michael Collins, the command module pilot of Apollo 11, which he released in lieu of individual media interviews this week.

In the statement, Collins talks about being honored to be a part of Apollo 11, and the perspective it gave him on the Earth. But he also talked about being irritated by the "adulation of celebrities and inflation of heroism" in American culture.

"Heroes abound, and should be revered as such," Collins said. "But don't count astronauts among them. We work very hard, we did our jobs to near-perfection, but that was what we had hired on to do. In no way did we meet the criterion of the Congressional Medal of Honor: 'above and beyond the call of duty.'"

Collins is not the only professional to voice that opinion. Talk to most astronauts, test pilots, of even U.S. Airways' Captain Sullenberger (of Hudson River fame), and they will protest that while they may have accomplished great feats, those achievements--and whatever attendant risks they carried--were fully within their job description; not "above and beyond," and not deserving of the term "hero."  

It's an interesting dynamic--the pull between the media or public's rush to label someone a hero, and, at least in some cases, the person's own reluctance to accept the title. But it also raises the question: what kind of actions DO qualify as "heroic?" And who gets to decide who fits in that category? 

In the ancient Greek myths, a hero was a demi-god; the offspring of both a god and a mortal. In the epic hero journey tales (think: Odysseus and Luke Skywalker), a hero is an ordinary human who chooses, or is thrust into, a journey that tests and teaches them. Initially brash or naive, an epic hero slowly learns through trials, challenges, mistakes and effort, so that by the end of the journey, they acquire an unassailable and "heroic" wisdom, power and strength. In more modern days, a hero has come to mean someone who, in the face of great danger and cost, not only shows the character traits of a fully-developed epic hero, but also risks or sacrifices self for the sake of others, or a greater good. 

But somewhere in there, I think Collins is right. Too often we blur the line between actions and traits that are admirable, and those that are truly heroic. (I wrote a piece last winter that explored this point more fully, especially with regard to Capt. Sullenberger, that can be found here). Wesley Autrey, who left his children on a subway platform and threw himself on the tracks to save the life of a stranger who had fallen off the platform in an epileptic seizure, clearly fits the criteria for a hero. So do all those in combat or disaster zones who risked or sacrificed their own lives for the sake of others. Or even civil rights workers like Congressman John Lewis, who risked their lives for the sake of justice. 

But in all those situations, the actions took the person out of what was expected of them, at great personal risk or sacrifice, for the sake of others. An astronaut, by comparison, is expected to take on the risks of space travel, and accomplish the goal of the mission. Just as a pilot is expected to bring an airplane down safely, even in an emergency, and a member of the military is expected to take on the risks of combat and act with courage and honor. 

And yet, to listen to the TV, everybody in any kind of risky or challenging job is a hero. And the public is quick to agree. Why is that? Are we just hungry for role models in a cynical world? Or are we, and the idea of heroism, being exploited for the purposes of drama, news sales and ratings? Perhaps part of the answer is a little bit of both. 

But part of the answer also may be that we're just mixing genres of heroes. An epic hero, after all, can be anyone, in any walk of life, who bravely faces what is thrown at them, attempts to learn from the challenges they have to overcome, and in the process exhibits courage and honor, and acquires wisdom and strength. Epic heroes are often a quieter sort than the "risk and sacrifice" medal-winning hero. They don't make for splashy news stories. But they are equally important, and certainly more plentiful in the world.

So Michael Collins is right when he says he's not a hero--at least in the way the media too often uses the term. He was an accomplished professional who did his job extremely well, and we are extremely proud of him, and the rest of the crew, for that. But that doesn't mean that Collins isn't a hero at all. I was intrigued by another part of Collins' statement, about what his space travels had taught him about Earth:

"I really believe," he said, "that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogenous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied."

Forty years ago, Collins said the earth from a distance appeared "Small, shiny, serene, blue and white, and FRAGILE." Asked if he thought it would look the same today, he said:

"Yes, from the moon, but appearances can be deceiving. It's certainly not serene, but definitely fragile, and growing more so. when we flew to the moon, our population was 3 billion; today it has more than doubled and is headed for 8 billion, the experts say. I do not think this growth is sustainable or healthy. The loss of habitat, the trashing of oceans, the accumulation of waste products--this is no way to treat a planet."

I don't know the rest of the details of Collins' life to judge for sure. And we ought to be careful in how broadly we apply the term hero, in any genre, lest we diminish its meaning for those who are truly deserving of the title. But given that Collins started out as a cold war warrior, it would appear that Collins' journey ... like those of all great epic heroes ... was indeed one of learning, and that the learning and expanding of perspective has continued in his life. Which is to say ... despite all his protestations, the irony may be that perhaps Collins has something of a hero about him, after all.