Jerry Linenger once lived among the stars.
During the astronaut’s nearly five-month mission aboard the Russian Space Station Mir, there were times he feared he might not return to Earth.
That 1997 mission—which he described as a lonely and treacherous experience at times—was also life-changing for the Michigan native. Seeing Earth from the heavens gave him a perspective that has guided him in the 20 years since.
“I'll tell you, when I thought I was taking my last breath and it was OK to be moving on, it’s not OK to be leaving the people I care about without letting them know what I thought,” Linenger said.
Since then, he has made a point of writing notes to people in his life.
He recently shared some of his wisdom as the keynote speaker at Haworth’s 70th anniversary celebration, a two-day event that drew hundreds from around the world to mark the milestone.
“As the office furniture industry’s biggest family-owned business charts the next seven decades, the perspective of a space explorer sets the tone for thinking about a limitless future,” says Kurt Vander Schuur, Haworth’s Global Brand Manager.
What was important to Linenger’s survival in outer space translates to being successful in life on Earth: Seeking out people you trust when things get tough, making time to recharge even when you have a lot on your plate, and having the moral courage to do what is right in difficult situations.
What’s life like in space? Linenger said, “It’s like being on a roller coaster, but on steroids.” One moment, his body felt the crushing pressure as he rocketed into space. The next moment, he was floating. Then there were scary times when he was free-falling through space.
Not surprisingly, Linenger, who has authored books about his experience, is a mesmerizing storyteller. He brings his audience along on his dramatic journey, explaining both the science and emotion of space travel.
He spoke of fire in space, which he experienced when an oxygen tank ignited. His description of the desperate search for a working oxygen mask as dense black smoke encircled him is so vivid, many in the audience felt their own breaths grow shallow, as if their air supply was being cut off.
Linenger, then 42, as well as the two Russian cosmonauts he was with, obviously survived. The incident has been documented as the worst fire ever aboard an orbiting spacecraft.
There were other close calls during his time on the outdated space station, from low oxygen levels to a computer malfunction that sent Mir tumbling uncontrollably through space.
During the 132-day mission, Linenger logged 50 million miles, the distance of more than 110 round trips to the moon.
The retired U.S. Navy captain, flight surgeon, and astronaut was awarded NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal in 2008 for his courage and outstanding service.
A scholar and triathlete, Linenger grew up in East Detroit. After high school, he attended the United States Naval Academy and earned a medical degree from Wayne State University. He also holds doctorates in research methodology, as well as dual master’s degrees in policy and systems management. The father of four now lives in Northern Michigan with his wife, Kathryn.
Learn more about Linenger’s space adventures in National Geographic’s new show, “One Strange Rock,” produced by Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky.