First Man, the movie about our landing on the moon, focuses less on the “giant leap” that mankind took with the Apollo 10 mission, and more on smaller steps in the life of the astronauts that the audience could relate to. During the take off scene, experience the sound of metal plates straining and rivets wanting to pop, the dizzy, sick-to-the-stomach feeling that arises when the visual field spins and the ear-splitting noise of a violent ignition. She, who has always wanted to go into space herself, said in a startled voice, “I don’t think I could really do that!”
I was married to a naval engineer who was–albeit briefly–a jet jockey and then, after flunking an eye test, a guinea pig at Cape Canaveral while he awaiting reassignment to the fleet. NASA, then beginning the Apollo program, asked him to solve equations inside a simulator, like the one seen earlier in the movie, that spun him around in circles to see how long he could last before throwing up or passing out. So I already knew that I couldn’t climb in that tiny capsule and be launched myself, but perhaps as a result, I had a bit more empathy for engineers than the average person who isn’t one.
In an earlier movie, Apollo 13, Tom Hanks portrayed astronaut Jim Lovell as cool under pressure and focused on the mission. The movie celebrated the value these behaviors can bring to achieving amazing feats, and as he helped problem solve in space, they made the program and lifestyle seem mythic. Ryan Gosling shows us these same behaviors in FirstMan but his portrayal underscores the emotional cost of Armstrong’s, and the program’s, tremendous focus rather than its heroic edge. It is interesting to compare the scene in First Man where his wife forces Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong to make the good bye to his children that he seems to be avoiding, with how Tom Hanks as Lovell manages the task in Apollo 13. Both portrayals show calm focus on facts as a way of answering questions that could raise strong and upsetting emotions, but Armstrong seems remote. It’s hard to know and empathize with someone that laconic, that preoccupied with the world within their own minds and the mechanical devices they must master.
The character trait of being energized by spending time alone with one’s thoughts, rather than chatting with others is called introversion. It is estimated that perhaps only 25% of our population is introverted, leaving the extraverted perspective–energized by people and social activities–to predominate. This subject brings to mind one of my husband’s jokes. How do you tell an introverted engineer from an extraverted engineer? Give up? An introverted engineer looks at his shoes while he’s talking with you. An extraverted engineer looks at your shoes. Military experience can reinforce that proclivity. Dating at the Naval Academy in the 60s was limited to special event weekends or the time between Saturday noon brigade formation and Sunday supper at Bancroft Hall. And during that time, you could not hold hands outdoors as no PDA (Public Display of Affection) was allowed while in uniform.
I’ve had the opportunity to visit several engineering programs recently with an honorary grandchild. They have changed significantly since when I looked at them with my own son. The field is no longer characterized by the choice between mechanical and electrical engineering. Most programs seem to offer eight to twelve different engineering specialties. Additionally the colleges are promoting a broader scope to their programs than just the STEM subjects. They intend to develop design creativity, public presentation skills, and business sense on top of rigorous math and science. It’s a tall but intoxicating order.
I would love to hear from you with your thoughts about the role of engineers and scientists in our society and in your life? Select the thought cloud button above the post to reply.