“The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet, and our visions go rather further than that, and our opportunities are unlimited.” Neil Armstrong
On Saturday afternoon I looked at Facebook and saw something about Neil Armstrong. At first I thought it was some sort of satirical post from The Onion, but then I realized that what I was reading was actually a statement from NASA. It said that Neil Armstrong had died. This is not news to anyone at this point I’m sure. There’s a lot being written about his life and achievements so I won’t go into that here as you can easily find more and better sources for that information yourself. I wasn’t going to write about this at all, since so many have written and spoken about it so eloquently. I’ve been working on another blog post for this month, and beginning to sketch out the one after that. But in the end I couldn’t let this event pass without comment, so here goes.
There are not a lot of pictures of Neil Armstrong on the moon. This is mostly because he had the main camera on the mission, and was assigned to take most of the photos. Buzz Aldrin also had a camera, but was assigned to take very specific, technical pictures. The photo at the top of this post of is of Armstrong working at the Lunar Module, and it’s one of my favorites. To my mind it captures something about him that a posed shot never would. Armstrong was interested in accomplishing the mission, not having his picture taken.
A lot of people described him as reclusive. From what I have read and observed this was not the case. When I think of a recluse, I think of Howard Hughes holed up in a Las Vegas hotel room with unkempt hair and long fingernails. On the contrary, Neil Armstrong did public appearances, granted interviews, testified before Congress, and made two tours to visit service members stationed around the world and on ships at sea along with fellow astronauts Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell. And that’s just the short list of the things I am aware of. He was not a recluse, he just did not seek the spotlight either here or that day on the moon.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I was very sad when I heard the news of his death. I knew that he had had bypass surgery, and also had been hearing he was recovering well so it was a huge shock to hear that he had died. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m the type of person who has heroes, and astronauts have been some of mine since I was small. In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of these men and women, and talk to them about their experiences, which is a privilege I never thought I’d have. I know that 10-year-old me jumps up and down inside my heart every time this happens. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Neil Armstrong, though the hope was there that one day I might. Now that’s not going to happen. That’s one part of why I was so sad, at least the selfish reason. The other part is harder to pin down. I think Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson put it best when he Tweeted: “Neil Armstrong was the spiritual repository of spacefaring dreams & ambitions. In death, a little bit of us all dies with him.” For me that sums it up. The people who participated in the Apollo program, are slowly passing away. There will be a time when none of them are left, and I guess this is a sharp reminder of that fact.
Being the first human on the moon is certainly a position unique in history. I would definitely have traded places with Armstrong (or any of the other moon walkers for that matter) to walk on the moon, but I would not want to be in his place to receive the crush of public attention that came after, and followed him for the rest of his life. He was 38 when he walked on the moon, so for 44 years he lived with the fame and attention that brought. He handled it with grace, humility and good humor from all accounts, which makes me respect him even more. It’s hard to lose your heroes. It’s like a part of your childhood has been taken away. I know there are a lot of other people who feel the same way. At the same time I offer my sincere condolences to the members of the Armstrong family and his friends and colleagues who surely feel a much sharper pain than I that he is gone. The world is a less interesting place for his leaving it, but is a far better place for his having been here at all. Today he is laid to rest, and tonight there will be a “blue moon” which is when the moon is full twice in a calendar month. Go outside tonight if it’s clear, take a look up there and give the moon a wink as his family requested. I know I will.