Lois M. Collins: Astronaut senator proves value of setting goals

Published: Thursday, Dec. 2 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Jake Garn's enthusiasm spills over when he's talking about his trip into space. And as I listened to him tell students at Hillcrest High School Tuesday about his 1985 110-orbit, high-speed trip around the globe in the Space Shuttle Discovery, I figured something out.

If you want to be inspiring, you should find whatever it is that brings out the very best you — the most engaging, wide-eyed, you-would-not-believe-how-cool-this-is you — and then share it with kids.

I've seen it more times than I care to count, covering an unbelievable array of events over the years: If you "perform" for high school kids, they see through you every time. If you lecture them, they yawn and tune you out. Talk down to them, they start talking over the top of you.

But Garn was offering these high school students a peek into a world most will never visit in reality, but a world that Hollywood has presented in highly dramatic and engaging fashion for a long time. While it feels familiar because of that, he gave them an insider's view. And that, combined with his passion, seemed to bring out the best in what was one of the most attentive and responsive audiences I have ever seen.

His message was actually kind of simple: Get ready. Open your arms to life. And dive in.

"Train your brain," were the words the former senator used. But it became more than a catchy slogan when he used the phrase to explain how a man who was already 27 when Sputnik became the first thing sent into space came to be a genuine space cadet decades later. He could not, he told them, have trained for space travel, since it didn't exist when he was of training age.

Garn said his dad was 10 when the Wright Brothers first flew, but in his lifetime he saw a man walk on the moon, courtesy of a television set that also came of age in his lifetime.

The point in telling the kids about his dad, he said, is that things will come along we can't even predict today. And since the students can't take a class in what might turn out to be, he encouraged them to be interested in a broad range of subjects, not just those that might pertain to what they think they'll choose for a career.

David Doty, Canyons School District superintendent, drove the message home with a related example. Astronaut Sally Ride had not aimed for a career with NASA. She was a scientist who tripped over a help-wanted ad and thought it sounded interesting. When she called, she qualified. So she, too, hadn't been preparing strictly for what she ended up doing as a career. She'd been preparing for life and when an opportunity came up, she raised her hand.

Garn joked about his passion for space: His wife says when he's old and has Alzheimer's he'll remember every detail of his shuttle jaunt. He agrees. And he counters that he'd never leave her except, perhaps, for a trip to Mars.

Garn also told the kids that at age 78, he still sets goals and makes plans for his future. It's a great reminder that as life rolls on, no one has stapled any of us to the map; we can change our thinking and our targets.

Afterwards, I asked a few of the kids what message they'd heard. They replied with variations on "dream big" or "don't let someone else determine how high you set the bar." I particularly liked this response. "He said I can."

The politician-turned-astronaut made it abundantly clear that when it comes to setting goals, the sky's not the limit. You can travel to space and back.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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