Bruce McCandless: “Okay. Neil, we can see you coming down the ladder now.”
Neil Armstrong: “Okay. I just checked getting back to that first step. Buzz. It’s not even collapsed too far, but it’s adequate to get back up.”
Bruce McCandless: “Roger. We copy.”
Neil Armstrong: “It takes a pretty good little jump.”
Bruce McCandless: “Buzz, this is Houston. F/2-1/160th second for shadow photography on the sequence camera.”
Buzz Aldrin: “Okay.”
Neil Armstrong: “I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. Down there, it’s very fine.”
“I’m stepping off the LM now.”
“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Some of these are among the most famous words ever spoken. And Neil Armstrong is one of the most famous names of all time. Like Elvis Presley or Jesus Christ, it’s a name that’s engraved into the public consciousness. People can have no interest in science, engineering, or space travel, yet can name the first person on the moon. But I was careful to write the most famous name, as opposed to the most famous person. Although Neil has appeared in the limelight and given great interviews, he was regarded as a very private individual, careful not to let fame take over his life. As he famously stated, “I am comfortable with my level of public discourse.”
So while he wasn’t a complete stranger to us, we didn’t know too much about the man himself. We knew of his achievements, and we knew some of his views on various topics, but he kept himself to himself. Other astronauts have loved the attention and jumped at the opportunity to share their stories, which is a great thing. It’s wonderful that we have access to people with these experiences. But at the same time I was always fascinated by Armstrong’s lack of public discourse and I often wondered how it must feel to be in his position. I have always admired his humbleness, and respected his desire for privacy. The press in the late 60s wanted to make him a superstar, but he had his own rules. As Kathy Sawyer (1999) wrote in the Washington Post Magazine:
“At few other moments has one person become the fulcrum of such weighty imperatives — to win a famous victory for America and vindicate a vast investment of national treasure, to penetrate a hostile frontier, to master a new technology, to navigate a harrowing descent to the unknown — all in the glare of rapt global attention. By the time he landed in the Sea of Tranquility, the country boy from Ohio had already spent most of his adult life in jobs where intensity of focus and the threat of violent death were part of his daily routine. He was used to all of that. It was, instead, the loss of privacy that appalled him. He loved to fly, and he loved his country, and in the name of those passions he was willing to risk not only his hide but a piece of his soul.”
“Only a piece, however — a mere finger’s worth — and no more. … 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. Whether as an astronaut, naval combat aviator, test pilot, civil servant, engineer, absent-minded professor, gentleman farmer, businessman, civic booster, amateur musician, husband or father, Neil Armstrong has followed his own code.”
Neil Armstrong was incredibly humble. He was quiet. In interviews, he was always very calm when describing situations we would consider terrifying and dangerous. It’s easy to think of him as soft and gentle, and this may cause us to forget something equally important about his character: he was badass, absolutely badass. This guy was a test pilot, flying the most dangerous contraptions at speeds I don’t even want to think about. On the Gemini 8 mission, Armstrong’s spacecraft went out of control, causing it to spin faster and faster until it was revolving once per second. Armstrong’s quick thinking in deactivating the manoeuvring systems allowed him to manually control the spacecraft using the re-entry control system and live to fly another day. This guy piloted a lunar module on the moon, having to choose a new area to land because of dangerous boulders everywhere, and landed with just seconds of fuel remaining.
Sadly, as of today (25/08/2012), Neil Armstrong is no longer with us. He died after complications during surgery to relieve blocked arteries. He was an inspiration to many and not just Americans. During my childhood he was one of my heroes. I estimated that I was about the right age to be in with a shot of being the first woman on Mars (I might have misjudged that by a few decades). Armstrong was a superb role model, in his achievements and his public behaviour. I am well and truly gutted.
In 1969, Presidential speech writer William Safire wrote a haunting memo as a suggested speech to be given by President Richard Nixon in the event that the Apollo 11 astronauts became stranded on the moon. I’ve always found it eerie, like a glimpse into an alternate reality. Obviously the astronauts survived the incredible mission, but I want to share this text because it deals with the loss of these brave men, a loss that today is very real.
“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”
Neil Armstrong will go down in history as one of the most important humans who ever lived. The first person to set foot on another world. He probably could have done anything with that fame. Instead, he lived his own life, and left us a simple message:
“I believed that a successful lunar landing could, might, inspire men around the world to believe that impossible goals were possible, that the hope for solutions to humanity’s problems was not a joke.”