Mission Specialist One

by Melvin Leavitt

Associate Editor

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    The story of a Latter-day Saint on the final frontier.

    Sometime this spring you will see him on your television screen, riding a trail of fire into the night or morning sky. Later you may see him floating weightless inside Space Lab 3 as he goes about his scientific experiments. You may see the great blue and white curve of the earth over his shoulder as he waves to the people back home. You may also hear him referred to as Mission Specialist One, the man in charge of the laboratory and the experiments in orbit.

    Don Lind is a career astronaut, one of that elite group of men and women chosen as pioneers to the rest of the universe. They are outstanding pilots and top-notch scientists. They are cool, calm customers, and they have been trained to the very edge of perfection. If Don and his six fellow travelers perform flawlessly during the Space shuttle flight this spring it will impress no one at NASA. It is merely what is expected of them.

    But Don Lind is unique even among his outstanding colleagues. He possesses the same authority by which the universe was created, and he has given his whole life to the Maker of stars. He knows that part of him is older than the oldest galaxy. He knows why the earth was made and why he is on it. He even knows where light comes from. In short, he is a faithful Latter-day Saint.

    When Brother Lind boards the space shuttle for his mission, he will take with him the prayers of many thousands of young Latter-day Saints who have been the special recipients of his wisdom. He has spoken to many LDS youth groups, often flying to youth conferences in his T-38 aircraft. He has no idea how many such talks he has given. He stopped counting at somewhere over 300. The walls of his den are clustered with plaques and certificates of thanks from just a few of the many groups he has spoken to.

    This man who has achieved so much and shared so much once had to learn to live with a great disappointment. Almost every day for many years he has driven past a reminder of a dream that did not come true. On a lawn near the entrance to the NASA compound is a Saturn V launch vehicle with an Apollo spacecraft at its tip. It lies on its side, broken into stages like the earth-beached skeleton of some great space creature. People stand and look at it and shake their heads. It is so huge there isn’t room for it in their imaginations. Standing there they have to reach inside themselves and expand their estimate of what man is. This is the stuff of legends. This earthbound ship was built to take men a million times higher than the ancient tower that provoked God’s wrath when its builders aspired to heaven. This mighty craft was scheduled to propel Don Lind to the moon, until budget cuts canceled his flight. Now that dream lies rusting on the grass with the mighty Saturn engines.

    One cool, misty morning last October, Don stood near the gigantic rocket, talking to the Mia Maids and teachers from his own ward. One of them was his daughter Lisa. He had just given them a tour of one of the simulators he used in training for the Skylab 3 flight. They had learned the function of the various gauges and switches, discussed how men work in weightlessness, talked about emergency procedures. They had sat in chairs just like those the astronauts would use and marveled at the incredible investment of time and training a person must make to take his or her place in one of those seats.

    Now Brother Lind told them a little bit about the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo mission.

    Then he talked to them about another journey, another mission, the one all mortals undertake, about the other mission control, and about the training that can get mortal adventurers home safely with their mission fulfilled.

    “If we’ve learned anything in the space program,” he said, “it’s that we don’t want to make emergency decisions during an emergency. We want to think ahead of time about all the kinds of things that might come up and have preplanned decisions, which we call the mission rules, on what we’re going to do. When you go off to college and get invited to a fraternity rush party, and somebody shoves a glass of beer or a cocktail into your hand, if you have never thought about whether you believe in the Word of Wisdom, that’s far too late. Or if some guy pulls into a dark, country lane with you, that is not the time to start deciding if you believe in chastity. You should have decided that a long time beforehand. When we train for a flight we practice our procedures for every possible emergency through lifelike simulations. Then if a real emergency comes up we already know exactly what to do. So you’d better review your lovers’ lane procedures before you get there, or what you’re going to do in the military base before you get off the base and some new buddy says, ‘Come on with me. I’ll take you to a great place.’

    “In life you’re going to get in these tight situations where, in a sense, you’re drastically alone. There may be 50 other people at the fraternity rush party, but boy, if you’ve never turned down your first cocktail, you’re going to feel all alone, and it’s going to be your background and your training and what you’ve thought out ahead of time that’s going to get you through some of those critical things.”

    Brother Lind shared his testimony of the power that comes with being about the Lord’s business. He recalled for them the time he was flying into Hill Air Force Base in Utah in order to fulfill a speaking assignment. A raging snowstorm had lowered visibility to zero and made it apparently necessary to divert to the Salt Lake Airport. That, however, would make it impossible to fulfill his assignment. He decided to make one approach before giving up. “I said, ‘Heavenly Father, I’m on your business, and I need your help.’ As I started in north of the Ogden airport, the sky was just like a great gray theatrical curtain, a solid gray wall. The control tower was calling out instructions. The RVR (runway visibility range) had to get up to 1,600 feet or I could not land, and the controller said, ‘You’re at four miles and your RVR is 300 feet. You’re at two miles and your RVR is 200 feet. You’re at one mile and your RVR is 100 feet’—then all at once he said, ‘4,800 feet?’ Just as I got to the critical point it was as if they had opened the curtain, and there was a long crack right down through the center of the snow squall, and there was the runway right underneath it, and I thought of Moses parting the Red Sea. There it was! I dropped onto the runway, and the storm closed over again. The snow was so deep I could hardly taxi in, and nobody landed at Hill Field for the next three and a half hours. Talk about an answer to prayer! I had a church assignment. I had to get there. The Lord literally opened up the snowstorm.”

    Brother Lind went on to tell them about the importance of the gospel in his professional success. “I don’t think I would ever have been selected as an astronaut had I not lived the Word of Wisdom all my life. The physical was rigorous. It took 60 working hours—about 6 working days—to take the physical, and it included every physical examination I had ever heard of and a few things that came straight from the Spanish Inquisition. I’d never have made it without having lived the Word of Wisdom. Point two, I’d never have been qualified had I not been through graduate school, and I honestly believe if I hadn’t been in a church that taught the glory of God is intelligence and had a mother who was a first-grade teacher I’d never have made it. So the emphasis on education both from my family and the Church is what got me through graduate school. I literally wouldn’t have been qualified had I not been a Mormon.

    “There’s another point, too. I really was preparing to be an astronaut long before they even had the program. When I finally applied they did an FBI search on me that was unreal. They went to my first-grade teacher. They went to the guys I topped beets for. They went to my next-door neighbor. They wanted to know if I was an honest man. One black mark might have been too many. You may not know what you want to be 20 years from now, but right now you’re preparing, and if right now you’re fouling up in your math classes, you may have disqualified yourself from any really important science job. Or if you’ve got a police record you’ve disqualified yourself from any important job with responsibility. So right now you’re preparing for something, and you’d better prepare well.”

    The young people listened intently as Don explained that although even as a child he had been a Buck Rogers fan and dreamed of going to the moon, he would never have been an astronaut except for an experience that seemed at the time no more than a fluke. Only years later did he realize that the Lord had reached out and touched his life.

    “When I was at Officer Candidate School,” he said, “the section leader came around and we were supposed to sign up for the, physical examination for any of the specialty programs such as underwater demolition or submarines. We were in the study hall, and he walked up behind me and said, ‘Okay, Lind, what shall I sign you up for?’ and I said, ‘Oh, by all means sign me up for flight training.’ He said, ‘Okay,’ and I said, ‘I’m joking!’ He said, ‘I already marked it down,’ and I said ‘Well, erase it!’ He said, ‘I marked it in pen, and this is the only copy I’ve got.’ If he had marked it in pencil he would have just erased it. I said, ‘What am I going to do now?’ He said, ‘Just go take the physical. You don’t really have to apply for it.’ ‘All right, fine.’ So I took the physical, and by golly I passed it! So I thought, well, you can always go down and just try out for flight training, and if you like it … I did try it, and I did like it, and eventually I began flying off aircraft carriers. But if that guy had had a pencil in his hand instead of a pen, I never would have been an astronaut, because flight skills are one of the requirements.

    “I learned from this experience that sometimes we don’t realize what the really critical decisions are, and so we’ve got to have the Lord’s help in guiding us. Choosing a wife or husband is an obviously important decision, but taking that physical didn’t seem very important at all. One reason you pray regularly is so that these seemingly insignificant decisions can be the right ones.”

    Looking at the Apollo rocket, Brother Lind said reflectively, “When I realized that I wasn’t going to the moon, that was a traumatic experience, and I had to reevaluate what was really important. I realized again what I knew all along—being an astronaut is not my most important calling. I remember a discussion my wife Kathleen and I had in which I said that getting to the moon couldn’t be all that important because probably 15 years later only she and I would remember if I made it. Can any of you name all the people who’ve been on the moon? But if one of my kids was in the state penitentiary or had just gone through some horrible divorce or something like that, that was important, so what I did as a father was obviously more important than what I did as an astronaut. So I came to the conclusion that there are really only two things that count—what you do for the family and what you can do to build the kingdom, and the rest of it is pretty trivial. And really, whether you walk on the moon just isn’t that important.”

    As a little icing on the cake, Don shared with them his visions of man’s future in space. He suggested that in his lifetime he will see a lunar base and manned missions to Mars, the asteroids, and perhaps the moons of Jupiter. He also explained with a twinkle in his eye that he planned on having a lot of fun on the shuttle mission. “One of the astronauts said after lift-off that it was worth five E tickets at Disney World,” he said.

    He finished with a firm testimony of the Savior and a reaffirmation of who the young Mia Maids and teachers really were and what their real mission on earth was.

    Don couldn’t be with them long, because he had many duties, but the young men and women had been dismissed from school till after lunch, so they took a tour of the visitors’ center, tracing the U.S. space program from the very beginning right up to the present. But although their heads were full of lunar buggies and Gemini capsules, they went away that day with an increased understanding that their own mission was far more important than anything that would ever come out of NASA.

    That night the Linds held their family home evening. With a little help from Don, Daniel, 8, led the opening song, and Lisa, 14, offered the opening prayer. They read and discussed the story of Helaman and the stripling warriors in the Book of Mormon and then looked at some pictures by Leonardo da Vinci. They are a family that appreciates art. There were paintings on the wall by both Don and his wife. One of Don’s paintings was of himself in his T-38, “playing tag with the clouds over the Gulf of Mexico.” The family also reviewed the official Skylab 3 insignia, which Don and his daughter Carol, a professional jewelry designer, had combined talents to create.

    After the family home evening, Don talked a little about the Lord’s influence in all human endeavor—including space exploration—and of his excitement at helping in some small way to bring to pass a promise in the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants.

    “God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now.

    “… if there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars—

    “All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times” (D&C 121:26, 30–31).

    After reading the scripture, Don said, “When the Lord promises to reveal whether there are bounds to the heavens, that is tremendously exciting, because one of the hottest issues in science right now is whether the universe is open or closed. The experiment I’ve got in orbit has a bearing on this question. To be involved in this kind of thing that is inherently part of the gospel as well as part of science is tremendously compelling.”

    Seeing Don here in the midst of his family, it was clear that he really meant what he told the young people about family being more important than moon shots. Five of the Lind’s seven children are grown up and gone away from home, but they were all remembered both in prayers and conversation.

    Sister Lind asked if she could say a word about her husband. “Don is on many committees, and he has many titles that carry a lot of prestige, but he has often said that the titles he values most are brother in the gospel, and daddy and husband. These are the things that really matter to him. He’s gone a lot of the time with his training. But when Daddy’s here, he’s all here for the children and for me.”

    Daniel adds, “He’s the most lovable person I ever knew. I love to wrestle with my daddy, but he mostly tickles me, and I don’t like that. I’m the ticklishest person in the family. The huge smile on Daniel’s face when he says “I don’t like that” reveals that he likes it more than he is letting on.

    Lisa comments, “My dad’s a great man and a lot of fun too. I come over to the space center with him all the time. We all feel like we’re part of his success.”

    This is a special family, not because Don Lind is an astronaut, but because this is a family that loves the Lord and one another. They are a special family just as every faithful Latter-day Saint family is special, and the Lord has been with them. Sister Lind says, “When we were engaged, and Don said he was going into jet flying, I got down on my knees and I talked to the Lord, and I said, ‘Don’t let me worry about him when I don’t need to worry about him. You know me, Heavenly Father, I’m a worry wart, and if he’s going to be safe, help me to feel like he’s safe and not to worry unduly.’ And He really has blessed me. There have been a couple of times when I have felt uneasy, and he really has been in danger those times. And the Lord has really spoken peace to my heart all the time. I feel the same way about his going into space. The Lord has helped him, and He’s going to continue helping him.”

    And so Sister Lind and her children will be at peace when night turns to day at Cape Canaveral and Don Lind leaves earth for a little while. The man whose ticket to the moon was canceled will finally slip away from the bright blue planet which he someday hopes to inherit as an eternal legacy. He is a man who enjoys adventures, a man who is eager to try and dare and do. But he will follow the mission rules very carefully while he is having the time of his life, because he is also a man who knows the final, vital importance of going home.

    Photos by Brian K. Wilcox

    Photo courtesy of NASA

    During their flight, the astronauts will perform many experiments. In one of them they will use silicon oil to simulate planetary atmospheres. They will perform experiments that shed light on the forces at work on the sun, Jupiter, and Saturn. (Photo by NASA/JPL.)

    In preparation for the flight. Brother Lind had to study many workbooks covering all aspects of the various shuttle and laboratory systems. Then there was hour after hour of practice in simulators that duplicate the actual flight experience. While the crew practices in these simulators, they are tested with every possible malfunction, until they respond automatically.

    Don himself has designed an experiment which will consist of videotaping the aurora (northern lights) while sweeping past it in orbit. This will yield a three-dimensional picture of the shape of these long bands of ionized particles. (Official Naval Observatory photo.)

    Brother Lind told the Mia Maids and teachers from his ward that it was vital they prepare in advance for those crucial, make-or-break decisions in life when the pressure is on and the future is on the line. He also told them of the many times in his own life when the Lord was with him in difficult times and of how they could have that same help.

    In the virtual weightlessness of space, the astronauts will grow crystals that are more nearly perfect than would be possible on the earth. This process will have important industrial uses for electronics firms. (Photo by Wayne Schnepple.)

    After meeting with Brother Lind, the young men and women toured the Houston Space Center visitors’ center, following the saga of space exploration from its earliest beginnings right up to the space shuttle that was orbiting the earth. As they studied the various life support systems, they thought of the many ways in which their own lives were like a space mission.

    In preparation for medical experiments on future flights, the Skylab 3 crew will take along 24 rats and 4 spider monkeys to determine whether the laboratory accommodations are adequate and to learn about caring for animals in space. (Photo by Marty Mayo.)

    When Brother Lind found out he wouldn’t be going to the moon, he was discouraged at first. But the experience helped him realize that a moon mission was insignificant compared to his family and the gospel. He is devoted to his wife and seven children. He has often said that of all his many titles the only ones he could not give up are brother, daddy, and husband.

    They will deploy a spectrometer that takes a spectrogram of solar radiation, thus measuring trace gasses in the atmosphere. It will produce a spectrogram in one second with a degree of resolution which would require ten hours at an earth-based observatory. (Photo by Naval Research Laboratory.)