I was only two years old when Neil Armstrong said those famous words and became the first man to set foot on the Moon. My parents sat me in front of the television to watch the Apollo 11 landing, but when you’re only two years old these kinds of world changing events don’t have any meaning. Growing up as a science and science fiction fan though that moment was one that grew to have greater meaning over the years. It was the moment when science went from finding better ways for us to kill each other to truly opening up a new frontier of discovery. The speech Kennedy gave in 1961, to inspire the American public, was made manifest in that moment when pictures of astronauts walking on the Moon were beamed to television sets around the world. For as long as there have been people they have been looking up at the Moon and wondering. Now there were people up there walking on another world.
Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts of that era took us with them on their missions. They were the living symbols of the efforts and dreams of a generation. People were personally invested in the tragedies and triumphs of the space program. Amazing people were being allowed to do amazing things, with the full support of their nation behind them. We all wanted to be up there doing those amazing things. Kids grew up dreaming of one day themselves becoming an astronaut, traveling in space. When one of these astronauts dies, it’s like losing someone in your own family.
Part of the sadness we feel at the passing of Neil Armstrong is the fading legacy of the greatest moment in the history of human exploration. After the last Apollo mission in 1972, humanity has been limited to low Earth orbit. Our dreams are still big, but the political will doesn’t exist to do more than grandstand about the possibility of returning to space. With the exception of China, most nations have slashed the budgets of their space agencies and with them the dreams of several generations. Sending rovers to Mars is important, but nothing compared to what it would do to our collective consciousness to have humanity walking on the surface of Mars. It would electrify a generation about science in the same way that the Apollo landings did.
Neil Armstrong was a remarkable man who was given the opportunity to do remarkable things. There is no doubt that his name will be remembered for as long as humanity endures. He always made a point to make it clear that landing on the Moon was a team effort. You probably couldn’t have chosen a better person to bear the honour of being the first man to walk on the Moon. People wanting to learn more about Armstrong should consider reading First Man: the Life of Neil Armstrong, by James R. Hansen. It’s the official biography of Neil Armstrong and one of the few biographies I have in my personal library.
The family of Neil Armstrong issued a statement today, summing up their feelings:
“We are heartbroken to share the news that Neil Armstrong has passed away following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.
Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.
Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati.
He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits.
As much as Neil cherished his privacy, he always appreciated the expressions of good will from people around the world and from all walks of life.
While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.
For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”