Neil Armstrong was, to all Americans, a source of national pride. Though he himself sought to lead a mostly private life, his abilities and devotion to his job put him squarely into public view for a great many years. I think, though, that his actions transcended mere nationalistic pride, bringing just a little light to every person around the world who knew his name. Carl Sagan once noted that even an aboriginal tribe in what we would call the middle of nowhere, and with minimal contact to what we recognize as civilization, knew the names of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and they knew those men had landed on the moon. They also wanted to know when we were going back.
In total only 12 American astronauts walked on the moon in the time from Apollo 11 to Apollo 17. When it became clear that the Russians couldn’t keep up our pace, our space program eased off dramatically. Today human space flight is stuck in neutral, at least frontier-wise. We have stayed close to home, in Low Earth Orbit, since the end of the Apollo missions. Robots have supplanted human exploration in favor of cost savings and risk minimization. Neil Armstrong, though, was a man who focused on a picture much larger than himself, and I think he wished that others would do the same. He attributed the success of the Apollo 11 mission to “…hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to…”. This was the kind of work ethic he was famous for, and he wanted no credit for it, but rather kept his head down and kept going in the name of doing better and not having gone far enough.
In remembering Neil Armstrong, we should start with the man, but not let it end there. To properly honor him, his memory, and his life’s work, we need to remember that he wasn’t in this world for just himself; he was here for us as well. Not just fellow Americans, but humans. He wanted more for everyone, and didn’t leave it to others to handle. He found inspiration in flight and followed that to a pilot license at age 15. Then he won the title of Eagle Scout. Then he went to Purdue on a Navy scholarship for engineering. Then he flew 78 combat missions in Korea. Then he became a test pilot. Then he became an engineering consultant on spacecraft, before there really were any. Then he became an astronaut. And then. And then. And then. He was a man who added to the fabric of the world more than most, and his work inspired others, and their work still others. He wouldn’t like everyone everywhere remembering him on a pedestal, so I think we should consider remembering him as a man who stood on the shoulders of those who came before him, and then stood up just a little straighter when it came time to lift the next generation.
I think I’ll go look at the moon.
More Neil Armstrong memorobilia, not all of it just about the man:
Motherboard’s photo collection of Neil Armstrong (Neil was the one holding the camera while on the moon, so there are very few pictures of him actually there)