Astronaut Richard Gordon is one of only 24 men ever to fly to the moon. He served as the Command Module pilot on Apollo 12, the second lunar landing mission, in November 1969. While fellow crew members Pete Conrad and Alan Bean explored the moon on foot, Gordon remained in lunar orbit, photographing the moon’s surface for possible future landing sites.
Gordon was chosen by NASA in 1963 for the third group of astronauts selected – the same group that Buzz Aldrin was in. He served as backup pilot for Gemini 8, then as pilot onboard Gemini 11, prior to his moon mission. Before joining NASA, he had a successful career as a Navy test pilot. He has received numerous service awards, including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Exceptional Service Medal, two Navy Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.
After leaving NASA and the Navy in 1972, Gordon embarked on a long and varied career in the world of business and professional sports.
I had an opportunity to interview him at Spacefest V in Tucson, where he was a guest speaker and panelist.
Q. You’ve had an illustrious career as an astronaut and a businessman. Tell me about how you got involved in the space program.
A. My career was late coming. I wanted to be all kinds of things when I was growing up as a youngster.
Q. What were some of those things?
A. It started out as a priest, a baseball player, and, when I went to school and started my education process, my major was in chemistry. What am I going to do with chemistry? Am I going to stay in a lab for the rest of my life and do great things for society? I’m not the lab kind of person. So, I wanted to be a school teacher. l wanted to be a dentist. Then, the Korean War came along and, in 1951, I left the University of Washington and Uncle Sam gave me the signal that he wanted some of my time. I met an airplane and fell in love, and that ended my career choice.
I was late in deciding what I was going to do. In reflecting on that kind of thing, I’m always astounded when young people know exactly what they’re going to do with their lives. I often wonder, is that the right way to make a decision? And then I look back and see what I did. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought of a lot of different things and I tried a lot of different things. It wasn’t until I went in the service and found that airplane that my decision was made for me. It was late. I’d gotten out of college without a career path and I thought, you know, this is not a bad way to do it. You try a lot of different things and you find out what your likes and dislikes are. More importantly, you find out what your talents or not-your-talents are. That’s the way my life turned out to be.
Of course, in aviation, one thing led to another. First, getting my wings. Deploying in the Navy. Being a carrier pilot. Being selected to go to Test Pilot School. Things started moving in that direction and, in Test Pilot School – I was a test pilot at the time of Sputnik in October of 1957 – so another decision was made for me. I ended up going into space and being in the space program.
Q. Did you apply to be an astronaut or did they come to you?
A. Some of both. When NASA dictated the original qualifications – age, physical, education, experience level, all of those things together – they would let the services know that these are the requirements. The service would do a computer run and spit out those people that met those qualifications. You were asked if you desired to continue in the selection process and, if so, then you went through the process of being selected.
I was not in the original Mercury group. I was in the second selection group, but was not selected. It was an extremely bitter disappointment for me at the time. I found out that maybe I wasn’t ready to do that sort of thing. I met the requirements again, obviously, and was selected in a certain time.
That failure – having failed the second selection – taught me a lesson. Have you heard the term that’s been used in the space program ‘failure is not an option’? Well, failures occur in life. I’ve thought about that a lot and reflected upon it, and I found out failure may be our best teacher. When you succeed in doing something, you haven’t learned – you already know how to do it. When you fail, you didn’t know how to do it, so you learn from that experience.
I think young people shouldn’t be afraid of that failure. Take the risks. You are going to fail along the way somewhere. You learn from it. If you don’t take those risks, you’ll never have a chance to experience that and, thereby, grow up a little bit.
Q. The kids that visit you here at Spacefest probably still dream of being an astronaut, but it’s so different than back in the day, and now we have the commercialization of space exploration. Do you think it’s a dream that kids can still achieve?
A. Oh, I think so. The occupation will be there, I think, forever. There will always be requirements but now, instead of being a test pilot and that particular discipline, space has opened itself up to all kinds of other disciplines. As long as it’s in what we now call STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – that arena now is open to all those people who endeavor in those disciplines.
Q. What did you do after you left the space program and was it a difficult transition for you?
A. I left simply because I didn’t have the opportunity to fly again. I went to NASA to fly and, when that opportunity no longer availed itself, I decided to do something else. I had an opportunity to go work for a good friend in Houston at the time, who happened to own the New Orleans Saints football team. I became the Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints professional football team and spent five years with them in New Orleans. At the end of the five years, I went back to Houston and worked in the oil patch for a little while, then bounced around again. I did some work with (a company) well known for wild oil fire solutions and that type of thing. I went to Southern California and worked in the computer industry for a while and finally decided I’ve probably done enough in life and retired.
Q. You’ve touched on some career advice already, but what is your single best piece of career advice for someone who is still trying to figure out what they want to do in life?
A. That’s a good question. I would say, keep looking. Keep looking. There’s an old expression – Jimmie Valvano said it best with the North Carolina basketball team – never give up. I think today, in this day and age, with the economy being what it is and the job situation, keep struggling. Keep fighting.
In the history of humankind, only twenty-four people went to the moon, Richard F. Gordon Junior is one of them. This is truly an astonishing achievement for him! He was born on fifth of October 1927, in Washington State and just like many other kids, he was full of curiosity and dreams, but it took him years to realize what the perfect career for him was. He finished college and received his BS (Bachelor of Science) degree (Chemistry as major) in 1951. He did not want to spend his whole life in laboratories doing chemistry stuff, so he started exploring other options before he finally fell in love with aero planes. This ended his career search because he then knew what he wants to do in life.
His love for flying made him part of history books; he is among the very few people who have been to the moon. Before joining NASA, he served in US Navy as a test-pilot for several years. He also held other positions in the Navy. He was then selected by NASA to become an astronaut, but it was not an easy journey. He was disappointed when NASA didn’t select him in the second Mercury-Group. It was a big-blow to him mentally, but instead of moaning, he refused to give-up. You learn from your failures, this is what this experience taught Richard Gordon.
NASA selected Gordon as pilot for Gemini 11 Mission, which was launched in 1966. Gordon and Charles Conrad spent approximately three days in space before their successful re-entry and landing back on earth-surface. During their time in space, they accomplished several tasks. They also performed several scientific experiments in space. In 1969, NASA selected him again as the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 12 mission. It was a completely successful mission. Gordon has not among the astronauts who walked on moon, he remained in lunar orbit and took photographs. One of the achievements of Apollo 12 was the first precise lunar landing.
He retired from NASA in 1972. He then continued his career in other fields including sports, oil & gas, and the Entertainment industry. He worked in computer-industry before finally retiring. His career and life story can teach us many things. He chose to pursue aeronautics as a career even though he studied chemistry as major in college; when you find something you love and are passionate about, you can always make it your career. It is never too late to start following your dreams! He ended this interview by saying that one should keep on struggling, keep fighting; you will eventually find the career you truly crave.