A passionate conversation with Mike Mongo

To find one’s passion in a career field and to love what one does for work on a daily basis is rare and few to find in today’s world. So many adults focus on what jobs will be able to support them and their families rather than on what jobs would make them want to wake up in the morning and want to go to work. Finding a job that pays well is a way to start one’s career path, but it is no way to live one’s life. Mike Mongo was fortunate enough to free himself from the restraints of the tedious work life and found his passion when he was in his early 40s. Now, he is an astronaut teacher who loves his job, but what exactly is an astronaut teacher? “What that means is that I encourage young students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that is space related: space professions and also astronautics,” Mongo said.

Before he became an astronaut teacher, Mongo was a science researcher for Danger Charters in Key West, Florida who specialize in eco-discovery tours. Mongo’s job was to train the crew of the charters with the science of what they were interacting with and the crew, in turn, would pass on that information to the guests that would come onto the charter boats. Many of the passengers who came onto the boats were students and Mongo was able to work with and educate them since he was on the boats all the time. These interactions became very special to Mongo for he would see transformations within the students. “There were these moments of transformation that occurred every so often when the young person on board would be so fixated by something transpiring before their eyes, that they were interacting with some wonderful piece of nature or some expression of marine biology, that they would, on the spot, have their life direction catalyzed and it was just amazing to be [a part of that moment], it was not just me experiencing the amazingness of being present for that moment. But if you were present for that moment, you could see the passion that young individuals were having revealed to themselves about a subject that they were not entirely familiar with previously,” Mongo said. The students would become enraptured with subjects like marine biology, meteorology, and anthropology, and being a part of these transformative moments made Mongo want to experience more moments like them. Around the age of 42, while he was working on one of the charter boats, he was going over his own career path and he thought, “What have I not done in my life that I want to do?” Immediately, he realized that he had not become an astronaut!

“The 11 year old inside of me had no greater ambition than to become an astronaut,” Mongo said. Due to domino effect events, Mongo did not have an adult around to encourage him to pursue the career of an astronaut while he was growing up. He worked and went to college and those events made him focus on business and financing, focusing on studies of other things besides science and distancing himself from his childhood ambition. “When it dawned on me that I wasn’t going to become an astronaut and then I realized why I had not become an astronaut, I wanted to make sure that other people, as they’re growing up, didn’t suffer that same consequence. And the great thing is that, right now, this moment we are in historically, is a terrific time to encourage students to pursue careers in space and astronautics,” Mongo said. In 2011, Mongo published a paper titled “Children: The Future of Space is Presently 8 to 12 years old” and its focus is to remind adults that they decide their career paths. “If we, as a society, encourage students across the board to look to space for careers, then we would engender a new space movement,” Mongo said. Mongo even said that his group of greatest success has been students of middle school years, thought he does apply himself to all grades: from kindergarten to senior in high school to college and on to post grad. For these grades, he has a wonderful talk on Vimeo called “How to Get Hired in Aerospace” and this has been well received by students and adults alike.

Mongo loves talking to children about space because the children of today who are 9 to 12 years old, by the time they are 25 and they have a bachelor’s degree, there are going to be plenty of jobs that are space jobs. “Tomorrow’s jobs are in space. I get to tell that to kids every day and they respond. The other thing I tell them is that they will not be able to look back and say that no one ever told them that,” Mongo said. “My name is Mike Mongo. You’re here. We’re here together and I’m explaining to you, students, that tomorrow’s jobs are in space and anything that you can imagine doing here on Earth, you kids will probably be able to do in space.” How exciting is that for a child to hear? Mongo asks students what they want to be when they grow up and then he really opens their imaginations by asking them, have you ever thought about being a space firefighter or a space veterinarian or a space contractor or a space athlete? “Getting these concepts into the minds of young students, putting those ideas into their heads so that they can begin to see themselves in these roles is, I think, the most important thing we can do to producing a space future for ourselves,” Mongo said.

A key tactic Mongo uses when teaching children is finding a way to connect them to science and space. “People who are not automatically space geeks may need some sort of connecting point and we need to provide those connecting points and make them feel included, that what we’re talking about is about them,” Mongo said. Mongo talked to a 10 year old girl named Talyah last year who had never even known that humans had walked on the moon. Mongo took a few moments and showed her a video of Mae Carol Jemison in space and of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. Mongo said that Talyah’s physical posture changed when he told her that Mae Jemison was someone who looked just like her. When Mongo left her, he got in his car and cried. He was disheartened because here was a fifth grader who did not even know that humans had been on the moon, but he was also grateful to have the honor of showing her her first astronaut and that that astronaut looked just like her. Another good connecting point is through what kids enjoy: movies. Mongo was recently at the yearly Starship Congress in Florida, the largest academic interstellar conference, and he referenced Benny the astronaut from The Lego Movie who, throughout the entire film, so badly wants to build a spaceship. This, to Mongo, is a great connecting point for young students in middle school and younger. He pointed out to the professionals in the room, “Listen, if you don’t know this reference, then there is a whole dialog that is taking place with young students that you are not privy to. It’s important to know these things,” Mongo said. “If you want to connect with young students on their level, you can’t do it with your level. When I’m talking with young students, I do not pretend that I am anything but a grown-up, but what I’m doing is modeling grown-up for them. This is how grown-up is and it is awesome. I explain [to students], ‘If you do what you love, you will get paid. That is the secret to success in life.’”

Mongo loves what he does and his life has been non-stop success. Recently, he had his first book published by Inkshares.com titled The Astronaut Instruction Manual: Practical Skills for Future Space Explorers. Mongo had used the information in The Astronaut Instruction Manual for years before he brought it to Inkshares, which he found when William Gibson tweeted about the website a year and a half ago. He contacted Inkshares, one thing led to another, and now, Mongo’s manual is one of the company’s first big successes. “Thank God for Inkshares,” Mongo said. “They have reinvented the publishing form.” The Astronaut Instruction Manual has barely been out for a week and Inkshares is already on their second printing of Mongo’s book. Mongo was ecstatic. “For me, it’s like, okay, here is a guy that for $12, you can give this person your life and they may be inspired to go to space. That is important to me! That is, like, oh, man!” Mongo said.

Mongo’s book is fun and appealing to the eye, bright neon colors of blue, red, and yellow stand out from the bookshelf. The information within is just as fun and just as colorful. So much information is shared in just 70 pages that will educate children and adults alike. Mongo is incredibly knowledgeable of space and does not sugarcoat anything within his story and tells children the truth about space: space is dangerous. It is good to introduce children to this fact and Mongo uses this danger to reveal a very fascinating fact about Earth, “We talk about living in space, but we don’t have any colonies underwater. We don’t have any real desert colonies. We must develop habitats that work for long periods of time in the harshest environments of our planet and then we can do space,” Mongo said. “Solving for the challenges of space will provide affluences to every challenge we face here on Earth today: energy, health, sustainability, inclusion, even prosperity.” Mongo said that one of the most revelatory things he shares in his book with students is that space is only 100 miles above us. That is it! 90 percent of the fuel in a rocket to get to the moon is used up within that first 100 miles. “It is 200,000 miles to the moon. It is 400,000 miles roundtrip and we use 90 percent of the fuel in the first 100 miles. Okay? That is boggling!” Mongo said. An author named Robert Heinlein had a line Mongo loves that states, “Once you get to low Earth orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system.” As Mongo said, boggling!

Mongo said that if someone had told him when he was younger that he was going to be a teacher, he would scoff and say, “I’m not going to be a teacher. I’m going to be a rock star!” However, as he grew and matured, Mongo began to realize, “Holy smokes, I do like encouraging other people and I really do like the moments of enlightenment when the lightbulbs go on in their head. I love those moments.” Mongo works with students every day and he said they have him training nonstop. With the release of his new book, who knows what else waits in store for Mongo in the future. “The simple little ques and tricks and guidelines that are imparted by reading The Astronaut Instruction Manual, as Lori Garver said on the cover, this is good advice whether you’re going to be on the planet or not,” Mongo said. The science fiction book Buckaroo Banzai written by Earl Mac Rauch had a tremendous impact on Mongo on how he lives his life when Rauch writes about the principles Buckaroo Banzai lives by. “The Five Stresses, those things to be stressed, are decorum, courtesy, public health, discipline, and morals. The Four Beauties are beauties of the mind, language, behavior, and environment. And the Three Loves are love of others, love of justice, and love of freedom. Such is the nature of the controversial program set forth by Buckaroo Banzai, whose only desire is to help humankind” (Rauch 14). Another quote Mongo lives by was said by tennis legend, Arthur Ashe, when people asked him how he became such a great professional: “Start where you are, work with what you have, and do what you can.” At the beginning of his passion career, Mongo volunteered and traveled on his own dime and he spent all of his free time learning and developing insights. Going to schools at first was new as he learned how to interact and engage the students and now, years later, he receives calls all the time from schools asking him to come in and teach and, for Mongo, it is wonderful. “That’s the trick,” Mongo said, “you start where you are, you work with what you have, and you do what you can and then, one day, you’ll wake up and it is going to be awesome.”

 

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