I was alive in 1969 when Apollo 11 went to the Moon. I don’t remember it, of course, because I was 2. But I do recall some of the later Apollo launches. (Yes, I have vivid memories of extreme childhood.) So I am proudly of that generation of humans who witnessed the bravest, boldest era of space exploration.
This weekend, the human race lost a titan among explorers. Neil Armstrong, the first human being to walk on the Moon, died at the age of 82. When playing 20 questions, he was always my first choice of “a person I’m thinking of”. I rank him with Magellan and Columbus, as men whose journeys genuinely changed the world. I recognize that he was a figurehead, that his accomplishment was truly that of a team of hundreds –nay, thousands!– whose brilliance and hard work accomplished the pinnacle of human technological achievement.
Armstrong the man was a mystery to many. To we space nuts, his humility and reclusive nature served only to make him more intriguing and fantastical. We need our heroes to be somewhat mysterious and inaccessible. I’d always dreamed of meeting him, of shaking his hand. I don’t know what I would say to him, but I know I would examine his face closely, to see the remnant of a transcendent experience. Only 12 men have truly walked upon another world, and he was the first to do so. Indeed, in the 4.5 billion years of life on Earth, Neil Armstrong was the first living thing to voluntarily set foot or tendril upon a new land. That’s no small thing.
If I had met him, I’m pretty sure my face would look a lot like Neil Gaiman‘s in this photo:
I spoke to my mother on the phone after I learned of the sad news. “Did you hear Neil Armstrong is dead?” I asked her.
“What?” She said. “Did he commit suicide?!”
See, she had thought I’d said “Lance” Armstrong, not “Neil”. Lance had just had his various cycling titles stripped from him due to doping allegations. This inspired me to tweet, “Guess it’s been a bad week for famous guys named Armstrong.” And then, later, to observe that, “Neil Armstrong tested positive for the performance enhancing substance called AWESOMENESS.”
I’m saddened that Neil Armstrong did not live to see the 50th anniversary of his historic achievement. I’m more saddened that he did see the collapse of the American manned space program. No one back in the Apollo era could have predicted that we would not return to the Moon for generations. And everyone back then believed that we’d have a colony on the Moon by now, and even a presence on Mars.
In other words, Neil got there too soon, and maybe for the wrong reasons. And yet, he was an inspiration for people like me, who sought to become space explorers ourselves.
But that’s a topic for another day. I want to leave you with three things. First, is a link to an article I wrote on the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, about my two heroes, Neil Armstrong and my beloved father: Man On The Moon.
Second, is a video of Buzz Aldrin knocking the bejeezus out of conspiracy theorist. Good for Buzz!
And lastly, is a message from the family Neil Armstrong:
R.I.P. Neil Armstrong, not just an American hero, but a hero of the whole human race.