Saturday, July 18, 2009

Tranquility Base

While I am sure there was a period in my youth when I wanted to be a fireman, a cowboy, or maybe even a professional athlete, my earliest memories are of wanting to be an astronaut.

Never mind that my odds of becoming a professional athlete were considerably better than those of joining the nation’s elite group of astronauts. It was evident even to me early on that I lacked the athletic acumen for a career in sports—it took years for me to appreciate what would have been required for me to satisfy NASA’s requirements (and be able to rationalize that the “real” reason was that I was too tall).

It was a magical time for our nation’s space program. There was a plan, three separate programs (Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo) to help us get there, and a vision—as President John F. Kennedy said in May 1961, of “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” There was also a sense of national urgency (the so-called “Space Race” with the Soviets, which was a lot less scary than the arms race), and, while the program was remarkably bereft of injury, the tragedy of the fire on Apollo 1 that killed three astronauts reminded us of the stakes involved.

And then, after years of watching Americans enter space, circle the planet, exit their craft while circling the planet (at unimaginable speeds), and then leave Earth’s orbit to touch the lunar sky, I can still remember the grainy black-and-white images of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man” flickering across the screen of my family’s small black-and-white television (replete with its aluminum foil-festooned rabbit ears) on that Sunday evening in 1969. An experience that was, in some form or fashion, replicated around the world that special July evening 40 years ago in a rare planetary unanimity of experience as we got that report of a successful landing at “Tranquility Base.”

Of course, it wasn’t all about developing “Tang,” magical space walks, and those incredible images of our astronauts bounding across the lunar landscape. It was about knowing where we wanted to be; putting together a detailed, comprehensive plan to get there; having any number of contingencies and backups “just in case”; the tenacity, dedication, and intellect to work around the inevitable problems that arise that you didn’t anticipate with those contingency plans (just watch “Apollo 13”); and—IMHO, the most critical element in the successful completion of any project—a deadline.

It doesn’t take much imagination to draw a correlation between the planning for a landing on the moon and a successful arrival in retirement (OK, so maybe it takes a little imagination). It requires a notion of what constitutes a successful arrival, an idea of the steps that will be required to get there, the tenacity and ingenuity to deal with the inevitable bumps along the way—and the specificity of a date certain to give some structure to those plans.

Students of history know that one of the contingency plans for the Apollo 11 mission was a presidential statement if those astronauts had crashed (they got pretty low on fuel before landing), or if they hadn’t been able to return to Earth (some engineer actually forgot to put a handle on the OUTSIDE of the lunar module door—and if they hadn’t noticed that and left the door open while they were on the surface, they might not have been able to get back inside the LEM). Fortunately, those contingencies are now simply interesting historical anecdotes. Still, it’s worth recalling that the ultimate mission was not only to get men TO the moon, but to return them safely home.

Similarly, as we ponder the accomplishments and planning that helped our nation put men on the moon, IMHO, it’s worth remembering that our “mission” is not only to get tomorrow’s retirees safely to retirement, but to position them and their finances to carry them safely THROUGH retirement…to their “tranquility base.”

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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