Sunday, August 26, 2012

Man on the Moon

"He was the best, and I will miss him terribly."

Michael Collins
Apollo 11 command module pilot

There may be no more vivid memory from my childhood than that of Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon in July 1969 and declaring it "[o]ne small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Before his historic moon walk, I don't recall hearing Armstrong's name. I think he flew in space once before — one of the Gemini missions in the mid–'60s, I believe — but I don't think he did anything that was especially noteworthy.

Certainly not when compared to being the first man to walk on the moon.

Armstrong was an inspirational figure then, and he continued to be an inspirational figure throughout his life, largely because of the values he acquired in his youth in Ohio and carried with him as an adult.

He did not seek the spotlight and often appeared uncomfortable discussing his role in the space program. When the subject of his moon walk came up, as it inevitably did, Armstrong always seemed eager to give credit to all the folks at NASA whose collective efforts had made it possible.

"Those who know him say he is a smart and intensely private, even shy, man determined to live life on his own terms despite having floated down that ladder into the public domain," wrote Kathy Sawyer in the Washington Post Magazine on the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing.

I knew Armstrong was getting old, but I didn't realize just how old (82) until I heard the news yesterday that he had died of complications following heart surgery.

As many have already said, he was a genuine American hero. Forty–three years ago, he was the first man to walk on the moon, inspiring millions of American boys to dream grand and glorious dreams.

But I always believed Armstrong would have happily piloted the command module on that trip and never even walked on the moon if that had been what was asked of him. Instead, Michael Collins was asked to perform that solitary task while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the moon.

Armstrong was a team player — not unlike another pioneer from America's space program who died recently, Sally Ride.

Armstrong and Ride were good foot soldiers in the quest to conquer space. If they had been called upon to sweep up or fetch coffee, they would have done so.

But fate had much bigger things in store for them. Armstrong would be the first man to walk on the moon, and Ride would be the first American woman to fly in space.

At a time when positive role models are in shockingly short supply, we've lost two in the span of a single month.

We are much poorer for it.

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