Carnegie Mellon University

Exploration & Emotion

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Professor Apt on Composing a Life

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Inspired at an early age by the romance and excitement of exploration and science, Jay Apt has led a unique life's journey in pursuit of his many passions: model rockets, photography, physics, flying and pure learning.

Formerly a space shuttle astronaut and now executive director of Carnegie Mellon's Electricity Industry Center, Apt recently gave a lecture on the many ways to compose a life.

"Although there are lots of glittering rewards in a single career life, you can also have a great time doing well in a bunch of different fields, as long as you can intensely focus on each one as it comes at you," said Apt.

An associate research professor in the Tepper School of Business and distinguished service professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Apt has spent a total of 35 days in space on four space shuttle missions. 

He has performed two spacewalks — one of which was an emergency rescue of a satellite. He has visited the Russian space station Mir and is the recipient of NASA's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal.

An award-winning photographer, Apt shares some spectacular images of Earth that he photographed from space in his book called "Orbit: NASA Astronauts Photograph the Earth," which is available online and at the University Store.

"It was pretty clear to me after my first trip into space that the romance was in sharing the view of the Earth that you get out the window," he explained. "I didn't have any training in the book business, but that didn't make me nervous. I'd analyzed what other people had done, what books had succeeded and failed, and came up with a concept of what I wanted to say."

The book, published by the National Geographic Society, has sold over 600,000 copies.

Apt is also a pilot, logging 5,000 hours in 25 different types of aircraft. He has flown his own airplane to Greenland, Iceland, Europe, Alaska and Central America, often with his wife and children.

"The world has beauty, and what I call magic, in it," he said. "It wasn't all easy, though. We broke the plane once, had to go back and fix it before we could fly it back home."

After 21 years in the space exploration program, Apt left NASA to become director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. He conceived and executed a turnaround of the museum's public programs, reversing a decade-long decline in attendance, reinvigorating scientific research and tripling the funds raised by the museum.

"You can choose one road or walk down a bunch, but success does require excellence and learning," Apt said. "And you can learn anything."

He adds, "If you can become a kind of a Swiss army knife, you can, for example, draw on knowledge that you might have gained in drama class to make a convincing presentation to an important decision-maker."

Among his recommendations for living a successful life: educate yourself broadly, lighten the burden of difficult tasks by having a lot of fun, and be bold.

"Don't be afraid to take chances," he told his audience. "I put my scientific career on hold for a chance to go into space. It didn't work out for a lot of people who did the same thing, but I don't want to come to the end of my life and have a huge regret for lack of some boldness."

Photographed: Jay Apt 

Related Links: Watch Jay's Lecture  |  Jay's Bio  |  Jay's Orbit Experience  |  Electricity Industry Center