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Former Astronauts Talk About Space Travel, Their Favorite Sci-Fi Movies and the Future of Our Planet – Parade

Just over 500 people in human history have traveled to space, and former NASA astronauts Jeff Hoffman and Jerry M. Linenger are among them. Hoffman was born in Brooklyn, New York, and made five space flights, including the first mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993. Eastpointe, Michigan-born Linenger is a retired captain in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, and has flown on the space shuttle Atlantis and Russian space station Mir.

They are both involved in National Geographic channel’s highly anticipated and ambitious One Strange Rock, an event series exploring the conditions that make Earth the only planet known to sustain life. Hoffman and Linenger will each host one episode of the show, which is produced by Academy Award-nominated director Darren Aronofsky (Black SwanRequiem for a Dream). One Strange Rock is slated for an early 2018 premiere.

Parade attended National Geographic‘s annual “Nerd Nite” bash on the roof of the Kimpton Solamar Hotel in downtown San Diego during Comic-Con weekend. During the lively party, Hoffman and Linenger each gave passionate talks about their experiences in space and their involvement in One Strange Rock. Afterward, we talked to them about what inspired them to pursue careers in space travel, their favorite science fiction movies and the future of our planet.

SAN DIEGO - JULY 22: Former NASA astronaut Jeff Hoffman attends the Red Planet/Blue Planet Party, presented by National  Geographic and Nerd Nite during Comic-Con International 2017 at Solamar Terrace and Pool on July 22, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/NatGeo/PictureGroup)SAN DIEGO - JULY 22: Former NASA astronaut Jeff Hoffman attends the Red Planet/Blue Planet Party, presented by National  Geographic and Nerd Nite during Comic-Con International 2017 at Solamar Terrace and Pool on July 22, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/NatGeo/PictureGroup)
SAN DIEGO – JULY 22: Former NASA astronaut Jeff Hoffman attends the Red Planet/Blue Planet Party, presented by National Geographic and Nerd Nite during Comic-Con International 2017 at Solamar Terrace and Pool on July 22, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/NatGeo/PictureGroup)

What made you want to go into space travel? 

Hoffman: When I was a little kid, in the 1950s before sputnik—at that point the Space Age was still mostly science fiction. I read about sounding rockets that were being launched, and monkeys going into space, but essentially my childhood heroes were the science fiction guys: Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. It was really exciting because I lived through the beginning of the real Space Age when sputnik was launched and then the first people went into space. All of the early astronauts were military test pilots, so I never really looked at being an astronaut, although I was always fascinated with the idea. It wasn’t a realistic career goal, because I was never going to be a military pilot. I was interested in science and space. I actually became a professional astronomer.

It was really when the space shuttle came along in the 1970s, and the shuttle had a crew of seven and they only needed two pilots that really opened things up for scientists, engineers and medical doctors. When NASA put out a call for the first group of shuttle astronauts, that’s when I applied and I was lucky enough to get selected. That changed my life.

Linenger: When I was 14 looking at the moon, I thought I wanted to be an astronaut someday. I went home and said, “Dad, I want to be an astronaut.” He could have said, “Jerry, forget it. Set your sights on something more realistic. Your odds of being an astronaut are one in a billion.” But he didn’t—he put him arm around me and said, “This is America, work hard and study hard, and you can be anything you set your mind to.” When I was up in orbit, during rough times on the space station, I’d be running on a treadmill and I could feel his presence. I could feel him telling me he was glad I made it and he was proud of me. That tells me that you’re never really alone. That tells me you always have people around you who care about you to draw on. You could say that’s a coping mechanism, but I choose to believe that was my dad’s presence helping me.

SAN DIEGO - JULY 22: Former NASA astronaut, retired Navy Cpt. Jerry Linenger attends the Red Planet/Blue Planet Party, presented by National  Geographic and Nerd Nite during Comic-Con International 2017 at Solamar Terrace and Pool on July 22, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/NatGeo/PictureGroup)SAN DIEGO - JULY 22: Former NASA astronaut, retired Navy Cpt. Jerry Linenger attends the Red Planet/Blue Planet Party, presented by National  Geographic and Nerd Nite during Comic-Con International 2017 at Solamar Terrace and Pool on July 22, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/NatGeo/PictureGroup)
SAN DIEGO – JULY 22: Former NASA astronaut, retired Navy Cpt. Jerry Linenger attends the Red Planet/Blue Planet Party, presented by National Geographic and Nerd Nite during Comic-Con International 2017 at Solamar Terrace and Pool on July 22, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/NatGeo/PictureGroup)

How would you describe the feeling of being in space to someone who has never been? 

Hoffman: It’s a feeling of freedom, and being able to do things physically that you would never dream of. That’s why it’s such a delightful feeling. I really think there’s a future for commercial space travel, because people will pay to have that incredible experience. It’s a joy; it’s an ecstasy. Your body has no weight and you have the freedom to move around in ways that you maybe dreamed of before but could never do it.

How has space travel changed your life? 

Linenger: I used to be a different person, a real stoic old Naval officer. Up there, I got in touch with being a human being. When I give talks like I did tonight, or in this show coming up, we’re hitting at some serious human emotions and feelings, and what it’s like in space. It makes you take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

What is it about One Strange Rock that made you want to get involved? 

Hoffman: When they contacted me, I thought it was an honor to be asked by National Geographic to work on a project. Then, when they described it to me, the idea of explaining some of the unique things about our planet that make it one strange rock, and that each of the episodes would be hosted by an astronaut given that we’ve had the opportunity to look at our planet from such a different perspective, I thought that was also a very nice idea.

Linenger: This show was very much on a personal level. My episode is on death. The show made me think about that kind of stuff. My body’s atoms of the Big Bang are in me, and now I need to be there for my kids and to perpetuate the next generation and leave something behind.

 

Hoffman in 1985Hoffman in 1985
Hoffman in 1985

Are there any films about space that really stand out to you as accurate portrayals of space? 

Linenger: The Martian (2015). As an astronaut watching that movie, everything Matt Damon‘s character did in that movie was something I was trained to do. The only question was could I execute one thing after another under pressure like that? I’m not sure that I could, and I’m not sure any astronaut could. The big insight for me in that movie is he used about 65% of the knowledge I have gained in my training. It was fun to watch.

I took my daughter and her class to see Hidden Figures (2016). My girl is 16, and her eyes lit up. I’m always encouraging her, and telling her she can do anything. We’ve got it pretty darn good in the U.S.—if you’ve got the drive, you can do it. I tell her that all the time.

Apollo 13 (1995) was fabulous. Gravity (2013) in 3D is the closest I felt to being in space. As an audience, if you want to know what it feels like, that gives you a pretty good feel, even though some of the details are a little farfetched.

Hoffman: So many science fiction movies and articles—how should I put it kindly—they just, get it wrong. In the case of The Martian, just like with Apollo 13, they did their best to get it right. It’s a pleasure when that happens. And they made a good story out of it. It’s a real public service, because people get the feeling—you know, maybe we really could go to Mars someday. And that’s important. That’s one role that science fiction plays that I think is maybe not appreciated enough. Science fiction has been around for a long time. And it’s given people the belief that we can go to space, that these things are possible. And that’s important because if you don’t think that something is possible, you’re not going to try to do it.

Do you think that young people today are being educated enough about the world around them, and about space exploration? 

Linenger: Yes, I think they’re in the right spot at the right time and I’m envious. My goal in life right now is to help launch them, because they’ve got so much more potential than I had when I was their age. When I’m talking to teenagers, I tell them the sky is not the limit. Space was what I got to, and I don’t know what their limits are going to be.

Hoffman: First of all, space exploration is not in the news these days in the ways that it was during the early days of the space program. It’s something that people have gotten used to…The really nice thing is nowadays for people who are genuinely interested, you don’t have to get your news from the main news channels. With all of the different media today, if you want to find out what’s going on there are a hundred different ways you can get that information. The NASA website is mobbed after every Mars probe or fly by Pluto, because even though it’s not on the evening news every night, there’s a lot of interest out there.

Jerry LinengerJerry Linenger
Linenger in 1994 

Is there any advice you’d want to give young people who are considering a career in space travel? 

Hoffman: We’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s been 50 years since we flew more than a few hundred miles away from the Earth…If this is something that kids are interested in, work really hard and build up your technical knowledge because space flight is a highly technical enterprise. You need your physics, math, chemistry and computers. Don’t be afraid to dream of difficult things, but realize that you’re going to have to work hard to make your dreams come true.

Linenger: My main point I tell people is you’ve got to love what you’re doing. You’ve got to have passion for what you’re doing. If you do, you’ll do it well. That’s the key to becoming an astronaut. You better have a great thirst for knowledge, and curiosity better be a big driver within you. Set your sights on big things, and even if you don’t quite make it, at least you’re going in a good direction and you have lots of other good options.

Being astronauts, you have a truly unique perspective of Earth. What are some of your hopes and fears for Earth for the next 100 years? 

Linenger: One thing I will say is that on a space station I had to support life. When I was working up there, it took a lot of my time and a lot of my effort to keep myself alive and to make it a habitable environment. Planet Earth is wondrous. It’s incredible. It’s evolved over millions and millions of years, and it’s buffering ability is majestic. It can take a lot of insult, but we can’t overdo it. We’re getting to the point where we’re overdoing it. With just some common sense measures on all of our parts and we’ll be just fine.

Hoffman: The first thing that most astronauts will tell you when we look at the Earth is what a beautiful planet it is. When you look closely, there are some pretty scary things that you can see. We can see some of the ecological damage that we’re doing to our planet from the cosmic perspective. You see the destruction of a rainforest, the pollution of rivers, the pollution over big cities. I think a lot of astronauts come back from space with an increased ecological sensitivity that we try to share with other people when we talk about it.

One Strange Rock will premiere on National Geographic in the first quarter of 2018, date TBD.

Former Astronauts Talk About Space Travel, Their Favorite Sci-Fi Movies and the Future of Our Planet – Parade

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