The Armstrong Situation

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“The Armstrong Situation,” New Era, Feb. 1988, 47

The Armstrong Situation

From Kathleen Maughn Lind, Don Lind, Mormon Astronaut (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985), pp. 125–39. Used with permission.

Like the famous astronaut, we face decisions where our eternities depend on previous training and decisions.

As I participated on the sidelines during the first harrowing landing on the moon, the thought came to me that in a very real way Neil Armstrong was all alone. There were thousands in the communication net, probably the biggest assemblage of talent available working together in the world, yet there was only one man in the whole system who had his hands on the controls. He would either do well or he would crash, depending on his own ability. What he had learned and trained himself to do was going to count right now. He did very well, but in doing it, he probably felt terribly alone. Many times during our lives we find ourself in situations that can be compared to this, where we feel terribly alone.

Now in another way, Neil would be the very first one to admit—and indeed, he would insist—that he was simply the apex of a tremendous team. A lot of people were behind him who could help, who had helped, and who would help if required, plus a great many people were wishing him well.

In the last 60 seconds before touchdown, the computer sent 12 messages to the crew. Twelve times in that last 60 seconds it wrote out the number 1202. Neil had memorized what 1202 meant years before, because of the significance of the message. It means, in essence: “The computer has failed. You are on your own. Good luck.”

Now, we had built a radar altimeter so incredibly accurate that every time we flew over a rock that was more than one meter in height, it would change the altitude, call up the computer, and tell it, “Hey, you have a new altitude.” If the computer got more than 1/1000th of a second behind in its calculations, the 1202 light went on. With the altitude in error by only a few meters because of the size of rocks they were flying over, the correction would be changed imperceptibly, so it was totally safe to ignore that particular problem. Neil had even been told ahead of time that if any caution warning lights came on during descent, he was to ignore them. If anything of real importance came up, ground control would call him and let him know.

On the ground was a man whose job was to ascertain when the 1202 lights could be ignored. If they could be, he would say nothing, but if anything was wrong, he would speak up. Neil had to decide whether this man was really telling him that everything was all right, or if the man was confused and didn’t know what to say, or perhaps he had gone out to the water cooler. The people who were giving him advice were giving the advice by simply being silent in this particular moment.

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where in one sense we are desperately and tragically alone, and in another sense we have a lot of people supporting us who can help us if we listen. These kinds of situations are what I call “the Neil Armstrong situation”—when we are faced with decisions, challenges, or temptations where what we do is as critical for a period of our life as what Neil did was critical for that particular flight.

Most of us reach a stage in life where we have to make pivotal decisions that will affect eternity. The most important decision we will ever be asked to make is the one we made in the council in heaven before the world was. Had we not voted properly at that time, we would not be here upon the earth now.

I believe that the second most important decision we make is whom we will marry. Based on that decision, all sorts of other things follow, such as the genetics of our children, where we will live, and our whole life-style during mortality. In fact, if I interpret the scriptures correctly, our very salvation is influenced by our marriage choice, because we enter the highest degree of the celestial kingdom only two by two.

Another important decision that most youths have to make is what they are going to do professionally. Suppose a person has a job that he really doesn’t do very well and that doesn’t give him much satisfaction. He goes home and nags his wife, which is the wrong thing to do if he wants his marriage to last forever. Life can turn out to be unpleasant if we get into the wrong job.

Throughout life we make choices and decisions on a daily basis that determine our status with the Lord. In the late teens and early twenties we probably face more of these challenges than at any other time. For example, say we go off to college. We would really like to get into a sorority or fraternity, and we are invited to a rush party. It is important that we make a good impression, or we won’t be asked to join. Before we realize what has happened, someone thrusts a cocktail glass at us. Now we have to decide what to do with that first cocktail. Do we pour it into a potted palm? (It might make the palm even more potted.) Do we drink it? Or do we hand it back and try to say something gracious as we decline it? If this comes when we are under the stress of wanting to feel accepted, we are going to face a decision—and we may feel as desperately alone as Neil Armstrong felt.

I would like to suggest three things that we should do as we face such decisions, challenges, and temptations.

1. We need to decide to whom we are going to listen. Lots of people are willing to give advice, and we can’t possibly follow all of it. Some of the advice will be contradictory. Some of the worst advice we will ever get is from friends. There may be those who would like to recommend to us the use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, or who might make suggestions that will place us in compromising situations. But even if they are friends, they may not necessarily have our best interests at heart.

When I was in graduate school, to help make ends meet, I took a job flying with the Naval Reserve. Occasionally we were asked to furnish services for exercises with the North American Air Defense Command. We would fly off to some place like Tonopah, Nevada, then turn around and try to make a simulated bombing run on San Francisco before the defense command could get F-106s from a nearby Air Force base up for a simulated rocket run on us. Our job was to see if we could penetrate the air defenses. We did everything we could do to foul up their system.

One time when we were heading for San Francisco, we switched our radios over to what we knew would be the operating frequency of the F-106s. Soon an eager young voice came over on the radio channel and said, “Torchy, Torchy! This is Lover Boy Two. Airborne, standing by.” At that time Torchy was the code name for the radar site on the north side of Mount Tamalpais. Lover Boy Two was the code name for the first F-106 that was airborne, and he wanted instructions.

We came up on the air and told him, “Lover Boy Two, this is Torchy. Angels, Three zero zero”—which means climb to 30,000 feet headed straight west. In just a few more minutes a third voice (the legitimate voice from the radar station) came on the frequency and cried out, “Lover Boy Two! Lover Boy Two! This is Torchy! Reverse course! Reverse course!”

Well, that pilot wasn’t going to be fooled. He was going to stick with that nice friendly voice that had been talking to him from the ground up. So he ignored the second voice and pressed on, heading straight west. Keeping in communication with the pilot, we ran several simulated rocket attacks out over the Pacific, but he never did see them, because they (we) were really 500 miles the other direction.

When we landed and filled out reports, we added, “Ha, ha! Look how we fooled you!” The point was that Lover Boy Two was getting all the advice he could ask for, from a voice that sounded friendly. The problem was, the advice didn’t come from somebody who had his best interests at heart. So we all have to decide whom we are going to listen to in life, because sometimes bad advice will come from friends or someone who sounds like a friend.

2. We should never be intellectually embarrassed about putting our faith in principles. Sometimes young people think that principles are unsophisticated or that they are old-fashioned, and they may feel a little embarrassed about hanging on to the things that their parents, priesthood or Young Women advisers, or seminary teachers talk about.

During World War II the scientific community was involved in what was called the Manhattan Project, which was the first development of atomic energy. One of the problems the scientists faced was a nuclear process called beta decay. This is when a radioactive nucleus blows itself up, for reasons known only to the nucleus, and spits out a bunch of fragments of that nucleus. One of the fragments is a high-speed electron called a beta particle. Under the rules of nuclear physics, these particles have to be spinning, but there was not as much spin after the disintegration as there had been before. Until the scientists knew why this was happening, they didn’t know how to control it.

Enrico Fermi, one of the great nuclear physicists, suggested that the scientists had simply not detected one of the particles that came out of that little explosion. If they found the missing particle, he said, they might also find the missing half unit of spin. Dr. Fermi gave the supposed particle an Italian name: neutrino, which means little neutral one. It has no mass. It doesn’t weigh anything. It has no electrical charge. It has no magnetic moment. Its ability to bump into things is so close to zero that to stop a neutrino by putting mass in front of it to make it bump into atoms would take several light-years. Thus, a neutrino can whistle clear through the entire earth with almost no chance of bumping into anything on the way through.

The scientists said to Fermi, “Oh, we understand. It’s sort of nothing spinning”—implying that if he wanted to take two weeks’ vacation, he would probably feel much better afterwards. But Dr. Fermi persisted. He said, in essence, “I believe in the principles called the conservation of energy and the conservation of angular momentum. If those principles are correct, the neutrino must exist, no matter how stupid it sounds. Let’s start looking for it.” Well, the scientists not only found the neutrino, but a total of six different kinds. They were discovered only because Dr. Enrico Fermi believed so strongly in the two principles involved that he was willing to postulate the absolutely preposterous particle called the neutrino.

The mental processes Dr. Fermi went through aren’t really different from the process a young woman might go through if she is at a sorority rush party and says to herself, “Let’s see, this morning when I was thinking clearly, I decided I would observe the Word of Wisdom at all times. Alcohol isn’t good for me. Maybe I should just hang onto that principle. I won’t tell these sorority girls about the Word of Wisdom right now, because they would just laugh, but I’m going to hang onto the principle. There is nothing wrong with it.” We should not ever be intellectually embarrassed about putting our faith in principles.

3. One thing we have learned in the space program is that it isn’t a good idea to make critical decisions under the pressure of an emergency. We need, as much as possible, to think about all our decisions very calmly ahead of time.

In my business I do a lot of high-altitude flying, to give me training for flying spacecraft. I get this experience by flying T-38s to meetings and training sessions all over the country. With that kind of flying schedule, I am bound to run into a thunderstorm sooner or later.

A thunderstorm has the capability to rip wings off an airplane. The ice that forms hail in such storms will form even faster on the inlet guide vanes of a J-85 engine. If chunks of this ice break off and are swept back through the compressor section, they will tear off the compressor blades. The blades can be flung off with roughly the velocity of a rifle bullet—sufficient velocity to make holes in astronauts! Anything spinning that fast, if unbalanced, will remove the entire tail of the airplane.

All things considered, the inside of a thunderstorm is not the place to be, so if there is danger of entering one of these situations, we take precautions ahead of time. The first thing to do if we are threatened with a thunderstorm is to slow down to 280 knots; the wings have the best chance of staying on at that speed. Next, we tighten the shoulder straps and seat belt so that we won’t be thrown out of reach of the control panel. We need to turn on the anti-ice heaters as high as they will go to prevent the ice from forming in the engines. If it is night, we can turn up the instrument lights as bright as they will go and then fly with one eye closed; then when a lightning flash wipes out the night adaptation of the open eye, we can switch eyes, hoping the first eye will recover before the next flash.

Now, what does this have to do with people who aren’t flying airplanes? There are situations in our lives that remind me very much of these thunderstorms, when the pressure is on and we feel as anxious as if we were being bounced all over the sky. We have to be able to think clearly even though the pressure is on. When we start feeling the pressure, that’s not the time to try to decide if we believe in the law of chastity. We should have made that decision a long time ago in the calm of a nonstress situation.

The Lord put us here on the earth to make decisions, some of them in the face of considerable temptation and pressure. We must decide ahead of time what principles we really believe in. It helps if we review our thunderstorm penetration procedures before we get into the storm, then decide whom we will listen to for advice. The Lord loves us and wants to help us succeed. Though Neil Armstrong was desperately alone in making decisions on the moon flight and was the only one with hands on the controls, he really had a tremendous support team behind him who were anxious to give encouragement, advice, and help. We too are at the helm of our lives, making decisions alone, but there is a caring support team to help us—family, friends, and Church leaders who sincerely hope we make it. Let’s cheer each other on!

Illustrated by Richard Hull

When Enrico Fermi, the great nuclear physicist, came up with the idea of a previously unidentified nuclear particle, everyone laughed. But he didn’t listen to them, and ended up finding the particle—in six varieties.