With the passing of the first man to walk on the Moon, the world is a different place. Gone is a real hero, who made history by doing what many would only dream of.
Over dinner, Jim and I realized that there are two different people in the world: The baby boomers - and older - who were able to see firsthand the miracle of 20th Century technology, as two men walked on the Moon, and the Gen Xers and younger for whom the event is a bump in their history books. It was thought it might be a good idea to view this first - and original - Moonwalk from the two differing perspectives.
Just like the rest of the world, my eyes were glued to the TV set as Armstrong walked down the ladder of the Eagle, on his way to set foot on what, up to then, had been the unknown world only visible by reflected sunlight. And, what an effort! Any and all ideas about the surface of the Moon had been described, including the possibility that the regolith could have covered the surface for several feet, and the little craft might just set down and continue, perhaps like an animal in quicksand. But, it didn't happen. As Armstrong opened the hatch and looked down, he noted the Canadian footpads were hardly imbedded in the lunar soil at all. And then he came down the ladder - and made the first of the footprints that will outlive us all.
This happened during the summer before my first year in Illinois, as I was waiting to begin my degree in Astronomy. This night solidified my resolve to continue in the sciences, for, even though we know the Apollo program was meant to show the advanced science and technology of the United States, and therefore to show that we were victors of the alleged Cold War, that exploration was alive and living in the '60s, and hopefully beyond. All of us watching history right off our television set believed we were observing just the start of manned space travel continually to the Moon - and beyond. The work of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins on this first of several lunar landings wasn't supposed to end. And, now, with the passing of Armstrong, a major part of the dream has ended.
History's most significant moments are often invoked by those who experienced them with question "where were you when?". For me, it was the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. Until that time, I had no recollection of a time when spaceflight was not a routine affair. I had known that men had been to the Moon, and the name Neil Armstrong was familiar to me, but never knowing a time when men hadn't been to the Moon, the Apollo Moon landings didn't stand out as momentous an accomplishment as it would have for those who lived and experienced them.
For many of my friends in Skyscrapers, their “where were you when” moment was Neil Armstrong's “one giant leap” on July 20, 1969. This event and the Cold War space race that lead up to it were the inspiration for many of them to become interested in space and astronomy.
Since I cannot relate to the actual moment of the first Moon landing, I do recall first learning about it. In the early 1980's my family would take vacations at Old Orchard Beach in Maine. We would often visit a seafood take-out place up the street from the motel where we stayed, which involved placing your order at the order window, and waiting outside the pickup window until your number was called.. Dad and I would always go to pick up the order while Mom and my sister waited back at the motel. There was this one particular time we went late, just after the Sun had set and a waxing crescent Moon hung high in the sky. As it always seemed like an eternity before the food was ready, Dad and I got to talking about the Moon, and he mentioned that men had landed there in the past, but not anymore. I was intrigued by this, and I became somewhat more interested in looking at the Moon that night. When we got home he took out an old issue of National Geographic and showed me what the Apollo missions looked like. I found it interesting, but would not really be captivated by the significance of it until a few years later.
While the Challenger accident was indeed a very sad event, I would eventually come to recognize that it had become my own personal inspiration to learn more about human spaceflight and the courageous adventures of the men and women who took part in it. In short time I learned about Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, and for the first time realized that Wow! Men have walked on the Moon!
Up until now, I have lived during the same time period as Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon.. So while I was not here for the first moonwalk, Neil and I have walked the Earth during the same time period. This may not sound like a note of significance but it is important to consider that Neil left his mark not only on the Moon, but also on humanity itself. His first footsteps on another world for all mankind will remain in the collective consciousness of human civilization for all of eternity, and as such it is remarkable to think that I have lived during the lifetime of one of the most significant people in all of human history. Carl Sagan once quipped “How lucky we are to live in this time—the first moment in human history when we are in fact visiting other worlds.”
I am pleased that with Neil Armstrong's passing has come not a mourning of his death but a celebration of his life. For it was not just his courageous accomplishments, but also his dignity and humility that have shown us what the character of a truly great human being should be. He made this world a better place by expanding the boundaries of knowledge and significantly raising the bar on what is possible, and he did it for all mankind.
Never stop wondering. Never stop exploring. Rest in peace, Neil.
“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we've learned most of what we know. Recently, we've waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan