Many times I have written about stories I’ve loved and how they shaped me, or acknowledged the passing of the dreamers and visionaries who shared those incredible worlds with us. However, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the passing of one person who made dreams into a reality. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, left the earth for the last time at the age of 82, and went into that undiscovered country.
Like many people in my generation, Mr. Armstrong was a subject of our history books, right up there with Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Charles Lindberg, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the many important historical figures we learned about, and a name for a blank on a quiz. His historic moon-landing was already “history” by the time I was born in 1984. I grew up in a world in which humanity had set foot on another world.
Then, when I was in fifth grade my dad gave me a copy of the movie, Apollo 13, for Christmas. I watched it at least four times after I got it and I loved it instantly. To this day it is still a favorite of mine, and the Space Race, and specifically the Apollo project became a hobby, if not obsession of mine. I read every book I could find wanting to know more about this real life space adventure and the brave heroes who sailed the stars, which included Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission.
For years, space travel and the moon landing, was but the product of science fiction films and stories by the likes of Jules Verne, HG Wells, and Ray Bradbury. Even CS Lewis had a short story about a moon landing. The Moon was a fertile ground for thrilling adventure stories and nothing more. That is until the 1960s and an ambitious President John F. Kennedy set America on the course for the moon.
There is a lot of politics behind the decision, but that is all a blog article for another time, and perhaps another person’s web-site. What matters is this: what was once deemed science fiction was becoming science fact and among the young men chosen for this endeavor was Neil Armstrong. A pilot with the US Navy, he was a veteran of the Korean War and had flown 78 combat missions, and received The Air Medal three times.
Upon leaving the military he found work as a test pilot, flying experimental Bell X-15 aircraft, and broke many records. NASA saw him as some one who had “The Right Stuff”, and he proved it. He could remain calm, he could perform under pressure, and not fly off the handle when trouble arose. He was the kind of person they wanted representing not just America, but in many ways, the human race, as he left the Earth.
He was assigned to the Apollo 11 mission, along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, a space mission, that, for lack of a better phrase, changed history forever. On July 20, 1969 he and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on another world. As he descended down the ladder of the Lunar Module, he uttered only a few words, words that like The Gettysburg Address, were so short and sweet, and yet summed up the moment perfectly:
“That’s one small step for ( a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Neil and Buzz would be the first of a dozen individuals to walk on our world’s nearest celestial neighbor. He left the space program in the 1970’s, but never left aviation behind. He was notoriously private, and made very few public appearances. While other astronauts like John Glenn and Buzz Aldrin served in the US Senate, he refused.
He never faded into complete obscurity, but at the same time, never sought the lime-light for himself. Even his death was overshadowed by the latest celebrity news, ranging from a Jersey Shore cast member having a baby to something relating to Justin Bieber’s dating life. Neil Armstrong was one of America’s greatest heroes, and yet he would say time and again that he was only doing the job his country asked of him. In essence he was then, the full measure of a hero. No hero sets out on the path seeking glory, fame and honor. They just do their duty.
A look at him and his fellow astronauts in pictures reveals just that. They did not “look” like the heroes we may see in movies or TV shows. Rather, they looked like ordinary folks, like the kind you’d see at the corner grocery store, or walk by on the street. They looked like us. Perhaps then it is appropriate that the names of none of the Apollo 11 Astronauts appear on their mission emblem. When Neil and Buzz walked on the moon, we all walked with them.
As his boots left their imprint on the lunar soil, one cannot help but be struck by how small it is. Neil and his crew members returned to Earth, bringing us all one of the most precious gifts: a much more clear picture of our place in the universe, and just how small we really are in the grand scheme of things. Talk about leaving behind a footprint for future generations to follow!
Good luck, and God Speed, Mr. Armstrong. And we, the people of the good Earth, say thank-you. Now, you belong to the ages.