"The Journey that Matters" by Jason Sanford

(originally published in a shorter form in M.)


When astronaut Duane Carey gives motivational talks at schools, he delivers one of two messsages:

If he's visiting a school in a poor area, he talks about his own life. How he grew up in a single-parent family in the housing projects of St. Paul; how he is the first person in his family to go to college (let alone outer space). "I want these kids to know that one of them is up there as an astronaut," says Carey. "I want them to know that they live in a country where they can do whatever they want if they're willing to set a goal and work hard to achieve it."

However, at well-to-do schools crammed with students who think a perfect transcript and attending the right college are all that matter in life, Carey talks about the important of doing something other than school. "Life is long," he says. "Get out there and experience the real world."

To Carey, both messages are opposite sides of the same coin--only by experiencing life can one see the true power of learning.

When Carey was growing up in St. Paul, he was not a great student. Even though he studied just enough to have decent grades, his main passion was motorcycles. He worked throughout high school to buy his own motorcycle and, after graduating, began biking around the country. He slept in backyards, worked odd jobs, stayed in one place only long enough to earn more money and go biking again.

However, after two years of doing this, Carey realized that he was just coasting through life. Or, as his stepfather said, "What are you going to do with the rest of your life?"

So Carey set some goals. First, Carey and his wife Cheryl, who shared his love of motorcycling, set a goal of going back on the road as soon as they could. Second, Carey decided to serve his country in the military. "I had seen with my own eyes how special America is," he says. "All across this land, I ran into nothing but the best of individuals. That made me decide to give something back to my country."

However, Carey didn't enlist right away. Traveling around the country had taught him that the best jobs went to those with college degree, so he decided to attend the University of Minnesota. He received an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University in 1981 and a masters degree in aerospace engineering the following year.

"By the time I went to college," Carey says, "I had already had enough real world experience to 'find myself.' That means I went at my studies with a vengence."

After graduating, Carey joined the Air Force. He flew A-10s and F-16s, served in the Gulf War and later became a test pilot. In 1995, he applied to be an astronaut with NASA. "Being an astronaut was one of those impossible goals you set," he says. "Even if you never actually reach it, just aiming high gets you running into all sort of good stuff along the way." But Carey did achieve that goal and began training with NASA in 1996. In March of 2002, Carey flew on his first space mission. He was the pilot of the space shuttle Columbia, which serviced the Hubble Space Telescope.

Still, at age 45--and at the height of both his career and, literally, the universe--Carey hasn't forgotten that other goal he set.

"Twenty-five years ago my wife and I set as a goal that, once our kids were in college, we'd go back on the road. Maybe travel around the world on our motorcycles. Doing this may be career suicide, but you need to keep true to the goals you set and have the courage to act on them."

This means that.sometime in the next two years, depending on when his next mission ends, Carey plans to retire from both the military and NASA. For Carey, an out-of-this-world career can't replace being true to one's goals. Which brings him back to education.

"Kids hear the mainstream point of view all the time," he says, "about how they need to go straight to college, hurry up, get a career and all that. What they need to realize is that there is no rush in life. Too many people keep their nose to the grindstone and miss everything that happens around them. If that happens, what have they really learned in life?"