America lost one of its true icons today, when Neil Armstrong, simultaneously taking for the last time both small step and giant leap, departed this world at the age of 82. The former Navy pilot and astronaut, who left the first human footprints – as well as messages of goodwill and prayers to the Almighty from U.S. presidents and world leaders alike – on our moon, inspired generations of Americans and citizens of the world with both word and deed.
Armstrong was a classic achiever and the true embodiment of American ethic and ingenuity. In The Right Stuff, the incomparable Tom Wolfe described the astronaut thusly:
[Armstrong's facial expression] hardly ever changed. You'd ask him a question, and he would just stare at you with those pale-blue eyes of his, and you'd start to ask the question again, figuring he hadn't understood, and —click — out of his mouth would come forth a sequence of long, quiet, perfectly formed, precisely thought-out sentences, full of anisotropic functions and multiple-encounter trajectories...It was as if his hesitations were just data punch-in intervals for his computer.
That brilliance, and the brilliance, tenacity, and limitless faith of so many more men and women, resulted in the first of several successful voyages to the moon less than a decade after President John F. Kennedy had announced the journey of over 238,000 miles to be our nation's goal. Truly, the early years of America's space program demonstrated the boundless possibilities that were open to a nation and a species that was willing (and motivated) to work tirelessly toward a never-before-achieved goal.
Including Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, only a dozen men have walked on the moon, of whom eight still walk among us here on earth. None of those twelve, it is worth noting, was born after October 1935. It seems amazing that, forty-three years after Apollo 11, the organizations responsible for space exploration and extra-atmospheric travel have long since grown bored with the idea of manned travel to the moon and beyond. Who would have thought, as Neil Armstrong climbed down the LEM ladder that July night in 1969, that America would quickly lose interest in such endeavors, that the final moonwalk would take place only three years later, and that following Apollo 17 we would choose instead to constrain human travelers to low earth orbit while sending unmanned probes and rovers, like the Mars rover Curiosity, to explore our own satellite and beyond?
That, to me at least, is a sobering thought.
In closing, as we lay Neil Armstrong to rest over four decades after the historic Apollo 11 mission, it is worth considering a speech that was once prepared for President Nixon to read to the nation in the event of that Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins failed to return from the grand adventure on which they had been sent by a hopeful and eager nation:
To: H. R. Haldeman
From: Bill Safire
July 18, 1969.
IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:
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.
In keeping with the sentiments expressed in that speech, which thank God never had to be given, the Armstrong family released a statement after Neil's death which contained the following words:
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.
Fair winds and following seas to a modern trailblazer and an example for all humankind.