By the time he died at 82, Neil Armstrong had travelled a half-million miles (quite literally) and back from his modest home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, to the Sea of Tranquillity on the surface of Earth’s only natural satellite. And he changed forever how we all thought of our place in the universe. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Forty-three years and just a bit more than a month ago, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon. He spoke for himself at that moment and, simultaneously, all the generations yet to come when he said, “That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.” (That troublesome little ‘a’ became a modest controversy. Armstrong insisted ever afterwards that murky electronics had smudged out the indefinite article that allowed him to include all of us in his words.)
For as long as humans looked up at the night sky, they have seen a silver orb suspended above them, its face marked by mysterious shapes and shades only resolved into craters, mountains and flat lava expanses when Galileo first turned his initial telescope towards it. The Moon regularly changed its form from slender crescent to full moon and back again, as regular as the tides we now understand it helps control. More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle and then Pliny the Elder had argued the Moon held sway over the brain just as it did with the tides. In fact, the very term “lunatic” was used to describe those who went crazy under the baleful influence of the Moon.
Speculative fiction writers like Jules Verne, then all the rest, devoted themselves to the pull of the Moon as the logical place where men would venture, after completing their domination of Earth. By the early 1960s, with the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union at full throttle, American President John Kennedy, searching for a task worthy of completion yet capable of being carried out by Americans ahead of those upstart Russians who had had the temerity to launch the first artificial satellites as well as the first men into orbit, settled on a manned voyage to the Moon as a challenge that could actually be achieved, and won.
Science fiction authors, along with filmmakers from Georges Méliès to Stanley Kubrick, had built landmarks in their careers by charting the progress of earthlings in establishing a near-earth space station, and then their heroic and dangerous dash to the Moon—and beyond. Robert Heinlein, for example, predicted the power of private enterprise wielded by a space-age robber baron would finance this gigantic enterprise and reach the Moon by the year 1978. As it turned out, of course, Heinlein and so many others got the details wrong, even as they embraced the bigger picture that a landing on the Moon was in the cards. Ironically, now the US government has actually embraced private enterprise to carry out the next steps in manned space flight as the ultimate in cost-efficient space exploration.
Photo: This NASA studio file image, dated May 1, 1969, shows the Apollo 11 crew of U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong, (L) who was the Mission Commander and the first man to step on the moon, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, (R), who was the Lunar Module Pilot, and Michael Collins, (C) who was the Command Module pilot. REUTERS/NASA/Handout
The Moon landing actually came nearly a decade earlier than even the most optimistic writers had predicted, and it did take a noticeable share of America’s treasury, as well as the labours of some 400,000 scientists, engineers, physicians, mechanics and Velcro manufacturers, among so many others. Together, they created, mobilised and shaped these resources into a national hi-tech enterprise to allow the small but robust Lunar Excursion Module, the LEM, to touch down on the Moon’s surface. The LEM was about the size of a large grocery van and it looked nothing like those streamlined visions of moon rockets from the pen and brush of space artist Chesley Bonestell, but it worked. Well. With it, Neil Armstrong could announce to the world, the evening of 20 July 1969, “Houston: Tranquillity Base here; the Eagle has landed.”
Armstrong had landed on the Moon’s surface together with Buzz Aldrin while command module pilot Michael Collins continued to circle the Moon to await their return and thence back to Earth. Once on the Moon’s surface, Armstrong and Aldrin spent about three hours collecting rocks, carrying out experiments, taking photos and jumping around to demonstrate the lesser gravity of the Moon compared with Earth. Reflecting upon this experience, struggling to find the right words to describe an experience in a way compatible with his test pilot-engineer nature, could only say, “The sights were simply magnificent, beyond any visual experience that I had ever been exposed to.” Not a poet to be sure, but one steely-eyed rocket man right down to the core.
In fact, as they had made their descent and the LEM came closer to the Moon’s surface, real danger came to the fore. Armstrong quickly decided the pre-determined landing site in the Sea of Tranquillity was too rocky and dangerous for a successful touchdown. Overriding the craft’s now overloading and primitive computer guidance system (an ordinary smartphone now has more computing power), Armstrong had taken manual control of their craft and, together with Aldrin, they nursed the LEM to a safer place to land.
The New York Times’ science editor would write of these moments, “…while NASA knew the eyesight of the [unmanned] orbiters was not sharp enough to resolve objects as small as boulders, they reckoned they could recognize a boulder field when they saw one from the surrounding topography. So the LEM’s computer was supposed to handle the actual landing—which it did just fine until Armstrong and Aldrin were making their final approach, when the warning-panel flashed what was called a 1202 alarm and then a 1201, both indicating that the system was overloaded and could process no more. The LEM, by now, was exceedingly low on fuel—and if the needle hit empty there’d be no running on the residue sloshing in the tank that motorists call fumes and astronauts call blow-down. Empty meant empty and that meant shutdown.
“And then, of course, the boulders appeared. All over the prime landing zone were massive rocks impossible to navigate and deadly to try even to approach. Armstrong took the stick from the harried computer, tilted the half-upright LEM into a head-forward lean and flew in the flat across the boulder field, finally touching down on a spot of soil that had been wholly unremarkable for the entire 4 billion years of the moon’s existence and would now become the most powerfully evocative patch of real-estate in all of human history. There were, NASA later calculated, about 30 seconds of fuel left in the tank.” Armstrong had earlier had two previous near-death experiences, once with a docking effort between his Gemini capsule and the Athena rocket and the other in the failure of the lunar landing module during a test run, prior to the actual Moon flight.
Watch: Neil Armstrong's immortal words
Throughout his career, in the decades-long tradition of taciturn fighter aces who usually let their achievements do their public speaking for them, Armstrong had been a demon fighter pilot in the Korean War (including service in the naval unit in that classic war flick, The Bridges at Toko-Ri), but he remained an introspective man. After the Korean War he finished his BA in engineering and then on to an MA; became a civilian test pilot for the military in the footsteps of the legendary Chuck Yeager; and then he became the standout member of NASA’s second intake of astronauts that would carry out the Gemini training missions that would practice then perfect the rendezvous and manoeuvring skills crucial for success with the Apollo Moon program.
Armstrong was in the group that followed the original Mercury Seven cohort that had included the likes of John Glenn and Alan B Shepard. Downplaying his celebrity, Armstrong had said of himself in one of his increasingly rare public appearances towards the latter part of his life, “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer. And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.” Amen, brother, amen.
Armstrong had his unique moment of immortality at the age of 38 and spent the rest of his life living with the consequences of that early accomplishment. After the Moon landing itself, together with his two Apollo 11 colleagues, Armstrong returned to Earth to the adulation of the nation (and the world), evocative of Charles Lindbergh’s after he had crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the first solo flight 40 years earlier. After the Moon landing, Armstrong never flew for NASA again, although late in life he took up glider flying, likening it the closest possible thing to becoming at one with the skies.
After his epochal Moon trip, Armstrong assumed a senior administrator’s earthbound desk job with the NASA mother ship, but then he pulled back further still from the public eye to become a professor of engineering. He was, however, thrice called back into the near-limelight. Twice he served on NASA boards of inquiry over major mishaps and then more to add his name, along with other former astronauts, in an appeal to president Obama not to end an independent American manned space flight program.
For America, the race to reach the Moon was a defining moment and high point of American technological prowess and national determination. By the time the missions after Apollo 11 had taken place (Apollo 13 had its near brush with disaster and Apollo 18 was cancelled for budgetary reasons), the nation’s pell-mell rush to the Moon seemed to hold less and less national defining purpose within it. The country was increasingly enmeshed in its disastrous war in Vietnam and the ensuing protests about it and the country’s ongoing civil rights struggle had evolved into dreadful urban rioting. For many, the country seemed to have lost its way. In contrast to these challenges to national coherence and purpose, conquering the Moon held less and less awe for many.
And yet, on of July 1969, this writer was at work in the evening at a hotel front desk, mesmerized by the images appearing on a small portable black and white television as those first grainy, almost indecipherable moments were transmitted to the world. At that moment, the 600-million people on Earth who were watching were waiting in unison, collective breath held until those first reassuring words from the lunar surface. Had Armstrong and Aldrin survived the descent? Was the LEM still intact or had it sunk into the many metres of lunar dust some astronomers predicted might be their fate on the surface? When it landed did, one or more of the struts collapse upon impact, making it impossible for them to return to the command module?
In a way that had been impossible to anticipate, the Moon landing became the most extraordinary, startling moment for humans, who looked back at their home world through Armstrong and Aldrin’s eyes to see that shining “pale blue marble” (in the late astronomer Carl Sagan’s prophetic words) in the Moon’s inky black sky. A thumb could obscure the entirety of the human race and all its works.
The New Yorker magazine, describing a public gathering in New York City watching on then-new, outdoor television screens, described how Americans came together to watch the landing. “Shortly before nine o’clock, Walter Cronkite announced that the hatch of the LM would be opened in half an hour, and the word was immediately carried over the Meadow on hundreds of lips. ‘The hatch,’ people whispered. ‘The hatch is going to be opened. The hatch. . .’ A few minutes later, the rain stopped and umbrellas were furled. The crowd around the television screens was so dense that movement was nearly impossible, and here and there, in a vast assemblage that filled the Meadow almost as far as the eye could see, small children, their eyes blinking with sleep and wonderment, were hoisted upon their fathers’ shoulders. The rain started to come down again, and hundreds of umbrellas were unfurled, only to be furled again as people in the rear protested that they couldn’t see the screens.
“When the hatch opened, and Armstrong’s booted foot could be seen groping for the rungs of the landing vehicle’s ladder, and the totally unreal words ‘live from the surface of the moon’ appeared upon the screens, there was a gasp, as if everyone had taken a quick breath. There was a smattering of applause, and then dozens of flashbulbs began popping as cameramen took pictures of a vast sea of faces held perfectly still at the same upturned angle and frozen into identical expressions of rapture and awe.”
The Space Shuttle program eventually succeeded the Apollo program. But now, with the end of that effort, in turn, the only manned missions that can go to the International Space Station are those venerable Russian Soyuz craft or those new Chinese manned rockets, but all of these are confined to near-Earth orbits. This is a far cry from where astronauts and SF writers alike all thought we would be, nearly 50 years after that first landing on the Moon.
One now sees extraordinary CGI versions of distant space explorations that can mingle in the imagination with actual images from the surface of Mars or the moons of Jupiter. One can think humans have come to know the universe from films like Avatar and Star Wars. Perhaps some of the awe and mystery of space exploration has been bled away from the actual events from all of this.
But in the absence of a sustained effort for manned space exploration beyond the 200-kilometre line above the Earth’s surface, at least for the present, the real successors to Armstrong and Aldrin’s epochal voyage are the high-tech marvels of the newest Martian explorer, Curiosity, and the even more complex machines that will come later.
Someday of course, humans will return to the challenge. But now, everyone should honour the Armstrong family’s request for the appropriate tribute to the man and his achievement through one simple act: “Honour 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.” Five hundred years from now, Neil Armstrong’s name will still be there, first man from Earth, on the Moon. DM
- Neil Armstrong, 1st man on the moon, dies at 82 at the AP
- Remembering Neil Armstrong, A Man of Profound Skill and Preternatural Calm at Time
- Made ‘Giant Leap’ as First Man to Step on Moon at the New York Times
- Neil Armstrong’s Voice at the New Yorker
- Notes and Comment by EB White and other New Yorker staffers at the New Yorker in 1969
- Neil Armstrong at the Economist
- Neil Armstrong, first man to step on the moon, dies at 82 at the Washington Post
- US astronaut Neil Armstrong dies, first man on Moon at the BBC
- Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012 at the NASA website
Main photo: US astronaut Neil Armstrong smiles in the lunar module after his historic moonwalk are pictured in this NASA handout photo. REUTERS/NASA/Handout