Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon, passed away today at the age of 82.
I have spent the last few hours reflecting on what Armstrong and the Apollo missions to the Moon meant to us as a nation, and to me personally.
There are national events of such drama and significance that most Americans can tell you where they were and what they were doing at the exact moment that they heard the news. These are events of such importance that it seemed as though time had stopped for a few minutes… news that is so powerful that you have to pull your car over to the side of the road so you can pay attention to the radio.
For me, the first time it felt like the Earth had stopped turning was the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I was eight years old.
The second was the crew of Apollo 8’s Christmas Eve 1968 broadcast from lunar orbit that concluded with astronaut Frank Borman signing off with, “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.” I had just turned 14 and I was thunderstruck by the combination of scientific wizardry, heroism and the nobility of the human spirit that was embodied in those words coming from a spaceship so far away. (Remember 1968? Borman’s message was a desperately needed and near-miraculous boost to the national morale at the end of an otherwise horrific year.)
My third frozen-in-time memory was Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” as he put the first human footprint on the surface of another world. It was the evening of July 20th, 1969.
I was watching this on the 19” black & white TV in my house. On channel 5, Walter Cronkite was crying. I’d never seen a TV anchorman cry.
I watched this amazing story unfold on TV for at least a couple of hours. Later that night, I went outside to my front lawn. I looked up, and there was the Moon.
I realized that I was both looking at a celestial object and at a place where people were, right now, at this very moment. I felt the universe lurch around and inside of me. Nothing would ever be the same. Humans were actually walking on another world.
Over the years I’ve always imagined that space exploration would be a kind of relay race, with one generation of explorers passing the torch of achievement and the challenge of new and more distant horizons to the next.
My grandmother told me of what it was like when Charles Lindberg crossed the Atlantic. I thought it was wonderful that she could have that exciting experience as a young person and then live long enough to also watch astronauts walk on the Moon.
I remember being in first grade as John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. It was fun to imagine as a child what space exploration would be like when I was my grandmother’s age.
In the imagination of my early adulthood, I saw a spacecraft landing on Mars. As the astronaut descended the ladder to put the first human footprint on another planet, an aging but still vital Neil Armstrong would send a congratulatory message from Earth, something about “the next giant leap for mankind,” or words to that effect.
In my imagination, that would be the perfect transition – Neil Armstrong watches, nods approvingly and smiles as humans first walk on Mars; generations of explorers overlapping and telling each other first-hand tales of their adventures.
But that is not to be. Neil Armstrong is not the first Apollo astronaut to pass away, but his was the passing I have dreaded most.
There is of course much, much more to space exploration than Neil Armstrong. But, for a generation, he was what most Americans saw in their minds whenever we thought about the word “astronaut.”