This December marks the 50th anniversary of the exhilarating Apollo 8 mission. I recently listened to the accounts of how these men trained to accomplish what seemed like an impossible task, and then later worked together as a team to accomplish that very task in Jeffrey Kluger’s Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon. I realized how much missionaries could learn from astronauts.
1. Attention to Detail
Astronauts must have great attention to detail. They must account for the smallest detail to provide mission control with accurate information. Missionaries similarly pay attention to detail. So much about a culture, language, religion, and worldview is not communicated verbally. Missionaries must work to pick up on subtle clues and ask questions to trusted cultural insiders.
2. Take Training Seriously
Astronauts engage in months of intense training for their mission. Everything they do is focused on preparing for the mission that they will undertake. Seminary students preparing to serve as missionaries could benefit from this approach. Seminary is much more exciting and purposeful if you engage in classes and assignments with the intentionality toward the mission.
3. They Know When to Have Fun and When to Be Serious
Astronauts trained vigorously, but they also found ways to have fun. Several notable astronauts even had a reputation for being practical jokers. Missionaries live a stressful life in a foreign culture with a serious task before them. Missionaries need to be able to relax and have fun to relieve some of that stress.
4. They Know How to Handle a Crisis
A crisis will happen. Astronauts know how to respond in those moments because they intentionally prepare and train for a crisis moment (see point #2). Whether it is a national emergency, natural disaster, theological controversy, or a personal matter, crises are inevitable for missionaries. Missionaries should plan for crisis scenarios that might arise.
5. They Pay Close Attention to Their Health
Doctors carefully screen potential astronauts for health concerns that could jeopardize the mission. Astronauts quickly become aware of their own bodies and health. Missionaries need to pay careful attention to their health in a similar way. Getting extremely sick in a village is not only miserable it is also dangerous. Missionaries should know their bodies well enough to know when they need help. They should also listen to their team leader and trusted teammates regarding when to seek treatment.
6. They Work Together as a Team
Astronauts train as a team from the very beginning. Each team trains for a specific mission and they know each other intimately even before they launch. A direct parallel may not be practical with mission teams, but missionaries should do their best to get to know one another before they live together on the field.
7. Every Team Has a Leader, but…
A team must have a leader. A leader is responsible for the direction and well-being of the whole team. At the same time, the leader of an astronaut team does not pull rank except in an emergency trusting the training and the expertise of each individual teammate. In those emergency situations, the team willingly submits to the leader for the sake of the mission. Each person is an astronaut, though. Each person brings their own personality and expertise, but no one questions the “astronaut” status of another. Missionaries bring a variety of backgrounds and experiences to the field. These specialties should be utilized for maximum impact on mission success.
8. No Matter How Many Times They Went, They Never Lost Their Sense of Awe
Whether an astronaut was launching into space for the first time or the fifth time, they never lost their sense of seeing something fantastic and incredible and being part of something remarkable. Nothing communicates this more clearly than hearing Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman reading Genesis 1 from space in their Christmas Eve Address. Missionaries should not let the task to which God has called them become mundane. Missionaries should strive to maintain a sense of awe both regarding the mission and the beauty of the people they serve.
9. They Signed Up Knowing the Risks
Astronauts have a dangerous mission. They volunteer to strap themselves to a rocket booster and launch themselves into the unforgiving vacuum of space. A very real chance exists that they will not make it home. They know and understand this. Their families also know and understands this. The mission is worth it. Missionaries need to understand the real risks inherent in the task. They also need to make these risks clear to family members and that the mission is worth it.
As you continue to hear more about the early days of America’s space program in the weeks and months ahead, I hope you will reflect on these lessons from astronauts. If you think of any others, please feel free to share them with me directly or in the comments below.
Photo by IMB.