Our astronauts are heroes, so it’s only natural that we focus on the courage and skill it takes to become one and the dazzling things they do while in space.
But what happens to them when they come back down to Earth, after their bodies and minds recover? What do they do with the rest of their lives once they have retired from what some would say the best job in the world?
Predictably, most carry the same commitment to excellence that drove their careers as astronauts into their second acts in life, though paths are quite divergent. Though many have chosen related careers in aerospace, technology and the military, others have diverged into writing, business, art, even politics.
John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, was a United States senator from Ohio for 25 years and ran for President in 1984; Mark Kelly, who flew four shuttle missions, is a current U.S. Senator for Arizona.
Kevin Chilton, who flew three shuttle missions, achieved the highest rank of any military astronaut, a four-star Air Force General; Tom Stafford and Susan Helms achieved three stars. And Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8, was CEO of Eastern Airlines. Yet, for all those who have remained in aerospace with the likes of NASA, Lockheed-Martin and Northrop Grumman, some have chosen more unique paths.
Rusty Schweickart, the Lunar Module pilot on the Apollo 9 mission, played an integral role in the development of Skylab, served as California’s Energy Commissioner, and later started a non-profit dedicated to defending the Earth from asteroids.
Franklin Chang Diaz, who flew seven Space Shuttle missions, is founder and CEO of Texas-based Ad Astra Rocket Company. And Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel to space (aboard Endeavour), founded a technology research company, worked as a college professor and has written a memoire and four space-oriented children’s books.
We could spend months talking about the post-space endeavors of our astronauts, but we’ll end with our personal favorite – the pride of our university, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Nicole Stott, the flight engineer on ISS Expedition 20 and 20 and mission specialist on two space shuttle flights, has taken up art post-NASA.
She found inspiration from what she saw out the windows in space to inspire her in her artwork. According to Stott’s website, her work “combines her artwork and spaceflight experience to inspire creative thinking about solutions to our planetary challenges, to raise awareness of the surprising interplay between science and art.”
In essence, it may seem like the final destination for an aspiring astronaut is just that, to be an astronaut. Instead, now we can see that astronauts use the experience from this incredible job to be the springboard to their next endeavor. Some might just want to be an astronaut, but maybe that is just the start of a beautiful career.