Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

We’ve lost Neil Armstrong to the stars at the age of 81.

Close-up of Neil Armstrong, smiling, in lunar module wearing suit with helmet off
Neil Armstrong in the Eagle module after the moonwalk.
Photo: Buzz Aldrin for NASA.

An obituary up on the NASA website includes excerpts from and links to statements from the Armstrong family, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and President Barack Obama. The page also has embedded video of Armstrong and links to information on the historic moon landing of July 20th, 1969.

You can find The New York Times’ front page [bad link] for that day online, in miniature, along with the text of John Noble Wilford’s article. Worth a look too, but not for delicate sensibilities, is The Onion’s mockup of how that satirical paper would’ve run the story. My pal Bully has reminded us how Armstrong’s “one small step for a man — one giant leap for mankind” looked in the pages of Fantastic Four #98, on the stands just six months after the event in our own universe, no less spectacular a sight for certain superheroes and celestial visitors having set foot in the vicinity before them.

I wasn’t alive when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the Eagle, Mike Collins orbiting above in the command module Columbia. The Apollo missions continued for a few years more but ended before I’d be old enough to have a memory of them.

Could there possibly be anyone of sufficiently mature thought, however, who isn’t utterly amazed by the fact that we’ve not only shot people into space but actually managed to land them on that glowing disc up in the night sky orbiting our planet?

Grainy shot of Armstrong in suit on moon's surface from above
Close-up of a frame of time-lapse video from Eagle, “the only
picture we know about in which you can see Neil Armstrong’s
face while he’s on the moon,” according to Charles Apple.

You don’t have to have seen the trips to the moon — we are, incidentally, nearing the 110th anniversary of the landmark short film A Trip to the Moon — or lived through the earlier days of the space program that led us there. The shuttle era was plenty exciting to my generation, despite the tragedies of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 and its sister Columbia in 2003 (if not also, in some horrific way, because of them — due to the nobility of sacrifice in the cause of exploration, that is, not the fascination of the abomination). Now there’s the International Space Station. And I was positively glued to the TV in 1998 when John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, took off
again in the shuttle Discovery at age 77.

I’m only hoping that with the United States’ manned space program currently in a fallow period, as private and joint ventures take up the baton, younger generations get swept up in the adventure of things like the X Prize.

Maybe we don’t think about it as often as we should. Maybe Armstrong’s death, the passing of Sally Ride not long before, and the landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars in between those losses will change that, at least for a little while, at least long enough to inspire more of tomorrow’s heroes and the people who in the best way enable those heroes. Maybe — based on the thrilling night that I spent a few weeks ago connected via the wonder of the Internet to friends and strangers all across the world, experiencing the folks in NASA’s Jet-Propulsion Laboratory as they experienced Curiosity’s touch-down upon what a few days ago was brilliantly named Bradbury Landing — that hope
is already redundant.

I get chills thinking ahead to the arrival of astronauts on Mars, just as I do merely realizing that — short of the complete annihilation of the human race, through natural disaster or our own stupidity — the name of at least one man whose lifetime overlapped my own is assured of being remembered centuries, even millennia, into the future in a wholly positive context.

Few photos of Neil Armstrong on the moon exist because, as Charles Apple noted in a column [bad link] for the American Copy-Editors Society website, Armstrong was the one with the camera most of the time. I’m using the photo taken by Aldrin that Apple calls “hardly a picture you’d want to use” for the very reasons, I suspect, that he said what he said — Armstrong is but a small figure in the frame, his back is to us, and he’s off to the side in what would classically be a poorly composed shot. Aldrin was taking a photo of the terrain that Armstrong happened to be in. Yet I find it a perfect way to remember the event; these men were pilots, engineers, literally men on a mission, simply doing their job during one of the pinnacles of human achievement.

Wide shot of American flag at extreme left, total black on the horizon, Neil Armstrong with back turned at extreme right
Neil Armstrong caught in a picture of the moonscape.
Photo: Buzz Aldrin for NASA.

A really bright young woman I used to know once had the fortune, during college, to attend a dinner with the fairly reclusive Armstrong. The pulse at her table was that the way to rekindle interest in space exploration among young people, despite the been-there-done-that attitude of many at NASA and throughout the scientific community, was unquestionably through the return of astronauts to Armstrong’s old stomping grounds and following that a push on to Mars. She told me that Armstrong couldn’t have been happier to hear it.

He’s crossed the real final frontier now. While I can’t help but believe in an afterlife, though, for all the fun that Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey are I don’t think that Armstrong will be waiting for us on some physical heavenly body in anything other than spirit. Our explorations of the soul and the solar system don’t have much crossover except in how they better help us understand ourselves and our fellow beings — which, of course, is where it matters. I’d like to think that Armstrong, the humble engineer and, to quote NASA’s obituary, “ambassador for the American spirit of ingenuity,” would agree with that as well.

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