Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong, R.I.P.

In the life of every legend, there comes the moment when he ceases being merely a man. For Neil Armstrong, that moment came, in a sense, on September 17, 1962. That was the day he was officially named an astronaut, and that evening his parents appeared on I've Got a Secret to commemorate the event.

It's a stunning moment, given that Armstrong was anything but a household name, when Garry Moore poses the question.  How would you feel if your son was the first man on the moon?  For Moore, born in the decade after the Wright Brothers' flight, the idea of a man walking on the moon was an abstract concept, an unimaginable goal that was inexorably in the process of becoming reality.  For those born or of age in the decade of the 70s, the moon landing was a given; impressive, to be sure, but hardly unfathomable, because they'd never known it any other way. 

Having been born in 1960, I was a child of the space age, growing up with the space program as a part of everyday life.  My memories became cognisant with the final flight of Mercury, and clearer as Gemini progressed.  By the time of the Apollo 1 fire, they were fully formed, and for the rest of the space race I was joyfully along for the ride.  

And amidst the iconic names of the era, the Glenns and Shepards and Grissoms, there was no more iconic name than that of Neil Armstrong.  

It was hard to believe that the images actually came from the moon.  I'm not talking about the kind of suspicion the conspiracy buffs promote, but simply the unbelievability that a live picture could be broadcast from another world.  Are you sure this is going to be from the moon?  They aren't going to just be broadcasting the audio over some kind of animation?

No, it was real all right, and Armstrong's small step propelled him into the unwanted realm of immortality, his name forever to be linked to the unimaginable.  As Arthur C. Clarke would write, "Now history and fiction have become inexorably intertwined."  Armstrong was not a Christopher Columbus looking for personal achievement, but a man carrying out a mission.  It was something that Armstrong, tempermentally more engineer than explorer, was never comfortable with.

But in another sense Armstrong was the perfect hero, a man who exuded integrity.  When he chaired the Challenger investigation committee, there was no thought that the committee would produce a whitewash or a coverup.  You knew Neil Armstrong wouldn't have any part in something like that.  His refusal to stay in the public spotlight, to make something of his renoun, added to that sense.  He always disclaimed personal honors, reminding everyone of all those behind the scenes who helped to make it happen.  And so his refusal to consider himself a hero made him more of one, and even more than that, it made him admirable.  There is a high school in Robbinsdale, Minnesota called Armstrong High School.  It's named after him, as I'm sure are countless others throughout the country.  There was once a coach of the Chicago Bears named Neill Armstrong.  Whenever I heard his name I always thought of the astronaut, as I'm sure many others did. 

And as the years passed, as Armstrong faded into the recesses of history, replaced by reality shows and flavor-of-the-month celebrities, his stature - at least to me - rose even more.  For those of us who realized the total magnitude of the moon landing, how it changed everything into pre-landing and post-landing eras, there was something amazing about the idea that Armstrong still lived, and that we shared that time with him.  It was similar to the way the early astronauts themselves had felt about Charles Lindbergh, who had lived into the early 70s and whom many of them had met.  There was something amazing about it all, and something comforting, to live with that link to greatness.

I doubt that flags will be lowered to half staff this week to commemorate Neil Armstrong's death, but they should be.  This will probably sound trite, but it's not every day that the first man to walk on the surface of another world dies.  We didn't see Columbus land in the new world, or Magellan circumnavigate the globe, or Hillary set foot on Mount Everest.  We weren't at the North Pole or the South Pole, we never saw explorers set foot on foreign lands, but hundreds of millions saw Neil Armstrong live when he walked on the moon, and anyone with a computer can call it up on YouTube any time they like.

The thing about greatness, though - true greatness - is that it tends to outlive itself.  The men and women who reach such greatness live on long after their accomplishments, in the pages of the history they helped to create.  So we'll remember Neil Armstrong, as we should, and marvel that we lived in his times.  
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