On Saturday morning, I learned that Dr. Neil Armstrong had passed away. I half-remembered a history I never lived through. I felt a sense of loss for the man. His quiet dedication and humble shunning of the limelight spoke more powerfully to his character than his footsteps on the Moon.
I also felt a sense of loss for an era in which an American president could call us to do something great and trust that we could do it.
“We choose to go to the Moon,” John F. Kennedy told an audience at Rice University. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
It is a wonder to go back to his speech. Kennedy traces the grand scope of history, condenses it into a decade, and places the Moon shot on the next calendar page.
No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.
Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.
This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.
Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson revved the engine of American ingenuity. And they greased the wheels of production. Our best and brightest stepped forward to touch the stars. The ones who made it had the “right stuff.” They were daredevil geniuses and fighter jock book worms with enough tempered steel in their guts to act as if it was just another job.
Still, they suffered and struggled. Some died. Their names grace the sky and mark the peaks of Martian hills.
All so men could set foot on the Moon.
And despite all the technological progress, the seductive wonder of the Space Age and the automated, systemized protocols of check, check and go, no-go, the computers on the Apollo 11 landing craft didn’t respond as expected. Armstrong landed on the Moon through the power of his own mind and his own hands.
I used to work at the National Air and Space Museum. I had a work study job in the children’s gallery in college. I remember walking past the Apollo 11 capsule before clocking in. I also remember when Columbia disintegrated. The museum staff created a memorial space for visitors to leave notes and flowers and to reflect.
So I bought a bouquet of flowers and headed to the museum.
There are amazing artifacts from the Apollo era. A piece of the Moon, the capsule, the spacesuits, food and tools the astronauts brought. Everything packed tight on top of tons or propellant, ready for a trip of uncertain success but certain purpose.
The Lunar Module exhibit on the first floor seemed the most appropriate place to lay the flowers. The module is a wonder to behold and a testament to the careful redundancy that was built into the Apollo program.
A crowd, bigger than usual, gathered around a tour guide. I noticed a man being interviewed by a news crew. I listened and learned he curated the Apollo artifacts in the museum. I spoke to him when he was done with his interview. His name is Allan Needell. I told him what I wanted to do and he agreed the Lunar Module exhibit made sense. To my astonishment and admiration, he took the flowers from me, climbed over the small railing between the visitors and exhibit and placed the flowers at the base of one of the lander’s footpads.
He told those paying attention that he had placed the flowers about where Armstrong would have taken his first step.
I thanked him – and the museum’s media relations director — profusely. The local ABC station interviewed me and several other patrons.
I’m so grateful to have been able to honor Dr. Armstrong in this way. I spent some time discussing his legacy with Dr. Needell and other staff and patrons.
Armstrong was certainly not the most boisterous astronaut. And others surpassed him in articulating the wonder, horror and joys of space travel.
But he represented the best of us.
I can’t find the original source for this, but it’s my favorite Armstrong quote. Remembering his view of the Earth from the Moon, he expressed incredible humility and humbleness:
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
Thank you, Dr. Armstrong.