- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

The third of only 12 men ever to set foot on the moon, Charles “Pete” Conrad was a dynamo. Known for his quick laugh and sense of humor, he overcame severe dyslexia and a troubled youth to win a scholarship to Princeton and become a captain in the U.S. Navy before joining NASA.

While with NASA, Mr. Conrad established a spaceflight endurance record on Gemini V in 1962, set the world’s altitude record on Gemini XI in 1966 and in 1973 served as commander of Skylab II, the first U.S. space station.

In 1999, Mr. Conrad died of injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident in Ojai, Calif. Before his death, the pioneering astronaut began work on an autobiography with the assistance of his wife of 10 years, Nancy Conrad.

Below are excerpts from a telephone interview with Mrs. Conrad, who has published her husband’s story in the new book, “Rocket Man: Astronaut Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond,” co-authored by Howard A. Klausner:

Q: What was the most amazing quality about your husband?

A: There were many amazing qualities about Pete. One of them was his ability to overcome challenge. He never saw an obstacle, always opportunity. In fact, we coined a word — “opstertunity.” He overcame dyslexia, family divorce, loss of family money, inability to read and then, of course, he went on to get a scholarship to Princeton and a trip to the moon.

Another one was his sense of humor. The guy was just colorful, a people magnet, just electric. People around him knew they were with someone extraordinary. When you were in a room with him, there was an electric thing going on. He just drew people to him, wore his celebrity in a really humble way and never drank his own bath water, so to speak.

He also never looked back but always looked forward. “I don’t sit around thinking about what I did but what I’m going to do,” was what he said.

Q: How did his dyslexia, unrecognized when he was younger, affect his life?

A: He couldn’t spell, couldn’t read and I think his [photographic] memory saved him in many, many ways. I think in many ways [dyslexia] was a very special gift and the gift was that he never took it as something to hold him back. His favorite words were “press on,” and he always did.

Somehow there’s this common thread amongst dyslexic individuals that many of them are visionaries. He could connect dots when there weren’t even dots there. He could see way into the future.

Q: What did he see as his greatest accomplishment?

A: Whatever he was working on. His favorite flight was Skylab and it … gave him the most satisfaction because they did things on Skylab that were just off the wall. [The Skylab astronauts went] walking in space with no toeholds and no handholds. Today, it would be unthinkable because we’re too risk-adverse.

He was very much in the moment and his life was a compilation of being in the moment. The man just relished what he was doing moment to moment. We don’t sometimes teach ourselves to appreciate the wonderful moments we have in our life.

Q: What was the driving force behind his life?

A: He always said, “Dream your dream and be your dream.” He was totally in tune — and these people are very rare — with who he was. Many artists, musicians, writers are like that. They know what they are supposed to do. He knew the gizmos and the airplanes resonated with him and he understood almost intuitively how to run machines. He was an operations guy, I think it was in his DNA. I think many people have that, but they don’t take the moment to just take time to understand it.

I think we all come in with something we’re supposed to do, and with Pete it was doing what he did. And he is such a fine example of what an American hero is. Today, when there’s such illusion about that, Pete was just one of those straight-shooting guys and you could count on him. But he never tooted his own horn.

Q: If you had to describe him in one sentence, what would it be?

A: He was person who was profoundly himself. …

You look at the history of America and it’s all about overcoming challenge. The dedication of the book tells it all: … “to the child in all of us who has experienced the exhilaration of overcoming a challenge and winning.” This country is based on that culture of press on, press on. We have overcome, in this country, a million things: depression, war. This country continues to persevere, and in many ways I think Pete is the embodiment of the spirit of this country.

Q: What did you want the Average Joe to walk away with after reading this book?

A: I want Average Joe to be inspired by someone who accomplished greatness in spite of whatever challenge. What’s incredibly important about Pete is that he’s kind of sandwiched in history. He wasn’t the first to walk on the moon nor was he the guy who didn’t make it, but he did everything right. I hope his story has impact. What we set out to do in this book, which was to not toot Pete’s horn, was to inspire. I hope that the message comes through that no matter what’s there it’s just an “opstertunity.” Pete never failed, he just always looked forward.

Perseverance is a huge lesson, keeping your sense of humor no matter what happens and being grateful for whatever the opportunities.

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