Neil Armstrong, who died Saturday at age 82, is, of course, remembered as the first human to set foot on the moon. It is a characterization both deserved and unavoidable. But, in remembering him and his accomplishments, it is also important to remember the remarkable times in which all that took place, and perhaps reflect on how and why our times seem so different.
Armstrong is also being remembered for his humor and grace.
Generations worldwide have seen his first step onto the lunar surface, but as one of the most famous men in history he exemplified the polar opposite of today’s celebrity culture. His “One small step ... ” line always had an ordered-to-say-this ring to it, and no sooner had he uttered it than he got down to work.
But what his moon landing lacked in poetry, he made up for in flawless execution.
His friend and former astronaut John Glenn told the Associated Press on Saturday that Armstrong touched down on the moon with between 15 and 35 seconds worth of fuel remaining, which fit perfectly with his reputation as completely unflappable. He had become known for that in a career that encompassed wartime service as a fighter pilot and work as a test pilot. The latter included extraordinary flights into space, if not orbit, at the controls of the X-15 rocket plane.
But it has to be said that Armstrong and the other astronauts in the early days of the space program were men of their day, firmly representative of the nation at that time. That was good and bad.
For one thing, back then, the American astronauts were all men. Valentina Tereshkova became the fifth Russian and first woman to orbit the Earth in 1963. The U.S. waited until 1983 to send the late Sally Ride into space.
Such shortsightedness was common in those days, but what Armstrong and the country did right was truly remarkable – and what we would do well to remember.
From the October 1957 launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik, which effectively began the space race, it took the United States less than 12 years to put Armstrong on the moon. That meant building three distinct families of space capsules, adapting three kinds of missiles to space flight, creating one entirely new launch vehicle – the Saturn moon rocket – and figuring out answers to countless questions never before asked. Whole new technologies were created almost literally on the fly.
At the same time, the United States also built the Interstate Highway System, effected tremendous societal change, created Medicare and fought the Vietnam War. Were we richer then, more determined or simply more confident?
Armstrong has been rightly praised for his personal humility, but that happily co-existed with supreme self-assurance.
As President Barack Obama said of Armstrong and his fellow astronauts, “They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable – that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible.”
As much as footprints on the moon, that is Neil Armstrong’s legacy.