From Mission to Mission

by | Apr. 22, 2004


Nine months later, everything changed. On January 28, 1986, the Challenger set off on another mission, STS-51-L, but exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts on board. The results of a months-long investigation were tragic for families of the lost crew, but were also chilling for Lind and the astronauts of Spacelab-3.

A set of three concentric “O-rings” designed to seal together different sections of the solid fuel rocket boosters had been breached, causing a massive fuel explosion. The investigation also found that the boosters on Lind’s mission had used the same type of O-rings, and that they had also disintegrated, leaving only four millimeters of the last O-ring to seal the critical spot. Had the remnant of this last O-ring failed to seal even a fraction of a second longer, Lind’s 1985 mission would have suffered the fate of the later Challenger.

According to the official investigation report, there are a number of reasons why the O-rings breached on January 28, 1986, and not on Lind’s mission: colder temperatures, wind shears, debris, or ice build-up, among others. Don and Kathleen Lind, however, need only one.

“The Lord keeps his promises,” says Lind, “I received a priesthood blessing before I went to space that I would go and come in safety, and I knew that’s what would happen. We weren’t more righteous or more deserving of the Lord’s help – those on the Challenger were good people – but it had been promised to us.”

Today, a painting hangs on Lind’s living room wall depicting the Spacelab-3 launch. He painted it from a photo his son had taken, but in the wisps of clouds in the background, two hands cradle the shuttle, as if guiding and protecting it.

Lind titled his painting “Three-Tenths of One Second.” As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lind and his wife Kathleen have continually experienced gospel blessings throughout his space career and beyond. Through their faith, they have been able to find rhyme and reason in the chain of events that lead them from one mission to another.

An Astronaut in the Making

Lind was born an astronaut, though no such thing existed in 1930. He thanks his father for his interest in science and engineering, because he always had a good answer for his “why” questions, and thanks his sisters for his interest in space, because they would accompany him in a make-believe play of their favorite comic book characters: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Brick Bradford. Lind dreamed of someday flying in space, but reluctantly observed that space travel was only a fantasy.

In the meantime, Lind considered other career paths. “In high school, I wanted to be a commercial artist, but I had an art teacher who left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that I headed in a different direction,” he says. “I then considered science or law. Well, all the lawyers I knew were insurance adjusters. I didn’t know any science people who were unemployed, so I chose to be a scientist.”

Lind received a Bachelor’s degree with high honors in Physics from the University of Utah in 1953 and a Ph. D. in High Energy Nuclear Physics in 1964 from the University of California, Berkeley. During that time, he also managed to earn his wings and the rank of commander while serving four years active duty with the Navy (and several more with the U.S. Naval Reserve) serve a two year mission in New England, and marry his sweetheart Kathleen Maughan, the daughter of his mission president (the courting was done after they left the mission field, he’s sure to point out).

Lind’s make-believe dreams of space travel, however, came to life when the United States implemented Project Mercury, the first manned-missions into space, in 1961.

”I thought, Wow!” says Lind. “I’m a pilot and a scientist! I’m perfect for the job!”

The road to space wasn’t as easy as the decision. The journey, however, consistently strengthened the Lind’s testimony in the gospel.

Don Lind: Mormon Astronaut

Lind’s acceptance into the space program, like any astronaut’s was long and arduous, but he believes that following the Word of Wisdom helped physically put him into the top 20 of an applicant pool of many thousands.

“We had to undergo 60 hours of medical tests, which included methods of Spanish Inquisition,” says Lind. “You had to be in top physical condition to pass. Luckily I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, and I was into physical fitness before the physical fitness craze.”

After two close attempts, Lind was finally accepted into the space program in 1966, and was a likely candidate to be the sixteenth person to walk on the moon. Training for this endeavor and his follow-up missions consumed his life for the next 20 years.

”Our training involved night-shifts at the local hospital emergency room to learn what to do if we had to perform emergency surgery in space,” says Lind. “We learned survival skills in the Panamanian jungle, which we’d need if we landed far off course. We also were taught graduate-level geology courses. But rather than learning in the classroom, we’d go to the actual formation, sit on the edge of it, and then learn about it with the world’s expert teaching the class. We couldn’t get that caliber of training at any university in the world.”

Rigorous astronaut training helped Lind quench his never-ending thirst for knowledge, but it also strengthened his testimony of families. “I could never have done it without my wife,” says Lind. “She was completely supportive.”

Lind's training would also make for some wonderful family home evenings. “I would bring back things like photos of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Alaska or some other formation or samples of light pumas rocks that we could float in our bathtub. Then we would all learn as a family what I had learned on my training,” says Lind. “We were always a part of what was going on,” says Kathleen. “Don did a very good job of making his adventure our adventure.”

At the beginning of his career, Lind believed that his adventure would lead him to the moon. But in 1970 it lead him in a totally different direction when the Apollo missions were cut because of budget constraints. Lind was devastated.

”It was a terrible disappointment,” says Lind. “The Lord had been instrumental in my getting accepted into the space program against incredible odds. Why? Why was I here when I wasn’t going to fly?”

The answer came to him one night while flying home on a T-38 jet.

”At 45,000 feet, there’s no one else up that high, so I could really be alone and think,” says Lind. “The city below looked like handfuls of diamonds sprinkled on black velvet. It was extremely peaceful. While I was up there, I received a spiritual answer to my inner turmoil. I knew that my job was to use my experience in space and to spread the gospel influence to young people.”

And that’s exactly what he did – after he served as backup science pilot and member of the rescue crew for Skylab 3 and Skylab 4, developed numerous payloads for early space shuttle missions, and, of course, flew in space. 

Brother and Sister Lind: Mormon Missionaries  

Lind left NASA in 1986, giving he and Kathleen a chance to share their testimonies throughout the world – sometimes with missionary tags, and sometimes without.

”We served in the Portland, Oregon Temple presidency for three years,” says Lind. “When we signed up for another mission, we were penciled in for the London, England temple. Instead of being called to a temple mission, we were informed that a general authority had chosen to change our calling to a public affairs mission in Western Europe. We weren’t assigned to preach the gospel, but, like John the Baptist, we prepared the way for it by getting the gospel’s name out to people who’d never heard it before.”

Over 18 months, the Linds gave more than 400 presentations and visited more than 165 schools throughout the British Isles, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

“I don’t think there was a real interest in us as individuals,” says Lind. “But there’s an interest in astronauts and in the space program and I am shameless in using it for the work of the Lord. Because of my experiences, we were able to get to places there missionaries couldn’t. For example, we gave a presentation at every Rotary Club in Ireland – places where missionaries couldn’t have gotten into without a crowbar.”

In England, 85 percent of the people there don’t know about the church. The 60 percent that do recognize the word ‘Mormon’ can only associate it with polygamy or Donny Osmond” says Lind.

“We needed to get the name of the church out to the people in a pleasant situation, and that’s why I’d always get the ‘commercial’ in somewhere in my talk. It would go something like this: ‘The Lord has been so good to us, and we wanted to thank him by doing some volunteer work for our church. Now, the name of our church is somewhat long – “The...Church...of...Jesus Christ – so, sometimes you’ll see the press refer to us as Mormons.’ That way, people could hear the name of our church twice, and hear it linked to Mormons.”

“Just as important,” adds Kathleen, “We were able to invite the spirit to the places that we spoke at, so people would be able to feel it.”

Even while not in the mission field, the Linds have served as ambassadors of the Church in countless countries.

”We’ve traveled widely throughout the world, being representatives of both our government and our church,” says Kathleen. “And wherever we would go, we knew we would have to set an example. It really strengthened us as we bore witness, even if just in the way we lived.”

The Lind’s have kept their standards high at all times, even at places such as official state dinners at the Kremlin: “While other guests and dignitaries were toasting with Vodka, we held up glasses of lemonade,” remembers Kathleen.

Although Lind has rubbed elbows with presidents and royalty, his devotion continues to be with the youth. “Even though I had some difficult times while in the space program, I knew I was there for a purpose – to reach the youth. I can say the exact same things as their parents and teachers, but I guess it sounds a little more interesting when it’s coming from an astronaut.”

Over the years, Lind has attended more than 400 youth conferences. “I am relatively certain I have spoken at more youth conferences than anyone else in this dispensation, “he says.

Lind has also spent time with youth outside of the Church, especially schoolchildren in England.

“Do you want to have fun in life? I would ask them,” says Lind. “There’s no greater fun to be had than being an astronaut – you can’t even imagine the adventures you’ll have. And you can do it – if you work really hard.

”First, to be an astronaut, you have to be a nice person, why? Because if you apply to the space program, the FBI will give you such a detailed background check they’ll find out any bad things that you did. Second, you have to take good care of your body, so you can pass the physical examination. That means no drugs, no alcohol or tobacco. Third, you have to get good grades and treat your teachers nicely.”

Lind has been asked about how well science and religion mix in his life.

“When I was selected as an astronaut, I was asked two different questions by dozens and dozens of friends and associates,” says Lind. “The first question was ‘did I think it was appropriate for a Mormon to be an astronaut,’ and the second question was ‘did I think it was appropriate for an astronaut to be Mormon,’ and those are quite different questions.”

”My perspective as an astronaut has not changed the way I view the Church doctrinally, but it has given me the opportunity to strengthen my testimony in some unique ways. I have been able to be in contact with general authorities, and my association with them has been deeply impressive. They are men of such high caliber.”

Lind also says his experiences in science have given him a chance to see some of the fulfillment of D&C 121:26, 30. “God shall give unto you knowledge…that has been revealed since the world was until now…If there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars.”

“One of the hottest questions right now is whether we have a closed (bounded) or open (infinite) universe. It’s interesting to see how the Lord predicted that science would allow us to discover these things. What we are seeing is science confirming the church.”

Lind has also proven that a good astronaut can be Mormon as well. After months of red tape and bureaucracy to work through, Lind was able to convince NASA to let him wear his temple garments in space. While on the shuttle, Lind read from his scriptures, which he later donated to the Church Museum, and blessed the sacrament, kneeling upside down, his feet on the ceiling and using a bunk for a table.

Despite a lifetime of fantastic experiences, Lind remains humble. “We have done some neat things, but we are just regular members of the Church with few special opportunities. Every morning I look in the mirror, and it’s just me,” he says. From mission to mission, Lind has never forgotten what was important to him: learning experiences, loving family, and serving God.

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