Visiting Tucson’s Miraval spa with my daughters-in-law last spring, I noticed a petite gal with spikey hair, lunching with a couple other attractive women. I came up with an excuse to talk to them. (Probably something about food, an old standby icebreaker.) I learned these gals came from different parts of the country and met through their husbands, who were fishing buddies.
The one with the trendy hair was Nancy Conrad. Her husband died, she said, but she and the gals get together every year. She lives in D.C. and runs the Conrad Foundation. It promotes STEM (Science, Technology, Education, Math) activities among highschoolers. She started the foundation in memory of her husband.
I march right through that door. “Who was your husband?”
Me: “Sounds familiar.”
Holy Venus and Mars, I think. Pete Conrad was a legend. As commander of Apollo 12, in 1969 he was the 3rd man to walk on the moon. He made 4 flights in space. He commanded the first manned Skylab 2 mission. (He and crewmates repaired launch damage to the Skylab space station, for which Pete received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978.)
Nancy lived in Colorado; Pete, in St. Louis. A mutual friend introduced them, telling Nancy, “He’s as smart, short and funny as you.” (Pete was just over 5’6”; Nancy’s 5’1”.) Pete’s personal motto: “When you can’t be good, be colorful.”
When Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, stepped on the lunar surface, we all remember his famous remark. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Conrad, the physically shortest man in the astronaut corps, followed 4 months later. When his foot touched the lunar dust, he said, “That may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”
Nancy and Pete married in 1990, a second marriage for both. Nancy had taught English, then been associate publisher of an international business women’s magazine. Pete went on to start four companies focused on making space travel more accessible.
Pete died in 1999 of internal injuries from a motor cycle accident. (He was wearing a helmet and within the speed limit.) He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Nancy co-authored his posthumous biography, Rocketman, published in 2005. Nancy says, “Pete died as he lived, doing what he loved.”
The LBJ Space Center in Houston has a grove of trees honoring the memory of astronauts who’ve died. Every Christmas, the center lights these trees with white lights, except For one. In respect for Armstrong’s motto, “be colorful,” his tree has red lights.
As a student, Conrad struggled with dyslexia. He was expelled from 11th grade for his inability to read or spell. At a different school, according to the foundation’s website, “a perceptive head master saw Pete’s spark of genius and gave him the confidence he needed. Pete went on to earn a scholarship to Princeton and a ride to the moon.”
As Nancy puts it, “He became an aeronautical engineer. He loved to fly and didn’t need to read or spell.”
In 2008, Nancy started a foundation dedicated to “transformational education” and to Pete’s “four decade passion for innovation and entrepreneurship.” Once a teacher, Nancy’s critical of our national education system. In a 2009 TED talk, she said our system was created for a manufacturing based economy. She called it a “Cuisinart” approach in which you throw ingredients into a machine and hope something good results.
“We now live in a global economy. Technology rules,” Nancy says. “Kids around the world stay up all night communicating online.” Nancy created a program that encourages young people from all over to work as teams, competing to produce ideas that benefit mankind
The “Spirit of Innovation Award” is supported by the US Navy, NASA, Kennedy Space Center and other big time players. It’s given to students, 13-18, in aerospace & aviation, cyber technology & security; energy & environment and health & nutrition. This year 145 teams competed. The most recent Conrad Scholars winners come from NC, FL, OH and VA. Students from Japan and Australia also received awards.
Students have produced ideas anywhere from a lightweight space suit with electrical muscle stimulants to noninvasive biomedical glasses that measure a person’s vital signs. Award winners present their ideas to leaders in their respective industries.
As Nancy puts it, “Think Shark Tank meets the Academy Awards for students.”
Nancy has spoken at MIT and Harvard. She testified before a US House of Representatives committee. She’s been named one of the top 100 leaders in STEM Education.
Nancy says, “We encourage kids to imagine. We want them to ask questions, to integrate their knowledge of science and to participate in designing the future.”
Talia Nour Omid, an early Pete Conrad Scholar, joined Nancy in the TEDx Talk she gave in San Francisco. It was 40 years to the day Nancy’s late husband landed on the moon. Talia said, “The Conrad Award helps students to look to the stars for their ideas and to fly there.”