Anyone above the age of 50 remembers where they were when Neil Armstrong took his famous one small step on the moon. It was the culmination of an age-old dream, to fly through the sky and to set foot on another world. It seemed to belong entirely to the realm of fantasy to many adults of my early childhood. Inspired as I was by the visions of Wernher von Braun, illustrated beautifully by Chesley Bonestell, I was telling people when I was five or six that I wanted to go to the moon someday. An indulgent chuckle was the common response.
But just a few years later, it was the decadal goal of a young American president. There is no doubt that the moon race was driven by Cold War competition with the old Soviet Union, and that it was meant to show the superiority of American free enterprise over the Soviet planned economy. One could argue that it did just that. What it did for me was to provide a pantheon of heroes—both American and Soviet—and a gripping narrative of achievement of seemingly impossible goals. That the first image of the whole Earth from space and the beginnings of the modern environmental movement both happened at this time is no coincidence. My treasured science fiction stories were playing out in real time.
In the summer of 1969, I was working as a deckhand on a Mississippi River towboat between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I had made the mistake of sharing my career goals, so I was “Professor” to all. The boat was tied up at the home office in Greenville, Mississippi for maintenance, and I was the only person aboard who believed the moon landing was real. As one exasperated hand explained to me (his language has been modified for a general audience): “Look, Professor. I can’t get a TV signal from New York City. How am I going to get one from the moon?” I learned a lesson then that I would often forget over the years—you can’t argue with logic. You just have to careful about your premises.
I often wished Neil Armstrong were more forthcoming about his feelings concerning his great achievement. But when I think about the emotional gushers coming from his fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, I agree with his other crewmate Michael Collins: “I can’t offhand think of a better choice to be the first man on the moon.”
Armstrong’s family had a beautiful statement on his death, and I can’t think of any better way to close this post:
“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.”