Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mr. Armstrong

When I heard the news that Neil Armstrong had died, I was deep in the midst of a wedding reception.  I had little time to think or reflect upon it until the drive home last night.  Thankfully, BBC World Service, which is carried by our local NPR station overnight, covered his life, his personality, and the almost unbelievable singular fact that he, Neil Armstrong, was the first human being to walk on another planet.

Just writing that sentence amazes me.

There are, and shall continue to be, encomiums aplenty.  What I know about Neil Armstrong is what most people know: He was humble and quiet, although when confronted by a Moon-landing-skeptic, he wasn't afraid to belt the guy one (Moon-landing-skeptics are hysterically funny to read or listen to, unlike creationists who tend to be annoying and Holocaust deniers who are just offensive).

For that brief, single moment, his foot on the last rung of the ladder from the Eagle Lunar Module, I wonder what he was thinking.  Considering we knew nothing at all about the geology of lunar soil, even the wildest theories about what might happen should we attempt to walk there weren't considered too far out there.  Some thought the surface was little more than tens of feet of fine dust and the lander and those inside would just sink in to oblivion.  I read somewhere - and I can't find it or I'd link to it - that several Lunar Mission specialists actually theorized that a person stepping on the Moon would cause an explosion.

All of those theories were put to rest, though, once "the Eagle has landed."  Now, here he was.  His fellow crew member, Buzz Aldrin, was waiting inside the module for his turn.  Michael Collins was in the orbiter, making sure someone was there to meet them when the mission was done so they could all get home safely.

He and Aldrin, for all there are cameras on them and their microphones were patched to the homes of about a billion people, I have little doubt that, for all their training and ability to focus on the mission, squeezing out the externalities as distractions, there had to be a sense of isolation no human being had ever felt before.  A quarter-million miles from their home PLANET.  Not their home city, or their home state, or country.

They were two men in a vehicle on the surface of another planet.

Then, he was down.  He uttered those immortal words about small steps and giant leaps.  He talked about the experience of moving about the lunar surface, trying to describe for viewers the details the cameras just couldn't convey.

With his passing, more than many if not most of the Apollo astronauts I can think of, we face the stark reality that a singular individual in the history of our species has died.  Some men and women had to be the first to step foot on the North American continent, or Australia, or Hawaii, or Fiji, or the Christmas Isles.  But those are all terrestrial habitats; someone, at some point, would have landed there.  Neil Armstrong was the first human being to step on another planet.

I do not wish to use this moment to bemoan the current state of our space policy.  I do not wish to invoke Armstrong's name to express something that is my own thought.  I only wish to say goodbye to an extraordinary man who demonstrated, not only with his achievements in the space program but his life after as well, what it means to be a great and good and honorable man.  The world shall not see one like him again.

That Neil Armstrong and I share one thing - we are both Americans - is something for which I am, perhaps inordinately, proud.  He was one of us.

Rest in peace, just as you did in life, Mr. Armstrong.  A grateful nation will see you home.

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