Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Giant Leaps

“Christopher Columbus, Charles Lindbergh, and Neil Armstrong. Ha, ha, ha. Neil Armstrong!”*

Photo of Armstrong smiling in his spacesuit Neil Armstrong has died. I received that information not with shock or sorrow, but disbelief. He became, on July 20th, 1969, the first human being to set foot on another planet. Henceforth and forever more he will be so.

Born in 1930 in Ohio, educated at Purdue University, he became a Navy combat pilot. Enemy fire crippled his plane, and he clipped a pole with his wing at an altitude of twenty feet. He was able to fly to safety and eject successfully. He later flew a number of test aircraft, including the X-15, which was capable of speeds in excess of four thousand miles per hour. Selected as a NASA astronaut, he completed the first docking of independent spacecraft on Gemini 8. That mission terminated early due to a short-circuiting thruster that caused his vehicle to tumble dizzily. Commanding Apollo 11, he set the Lunar Module on the Moon’s surface with a negligible amount of fuel left, barely enough to give him and co-pilot Buzz Aldrin a safety margin in the event of an aborted landing attempt.

Safety margin. Human powered flight was less than seventy years old at the time of his mission. He and Aldrin flew a bumblebee-like contraption with skin so thin a clumsily-dropped tool would pierce it easily. Had anything prevented their planned ascent from the surface…they might as well have been on the Moon. Yeah.


My father and I sat in awe as the first TV pictures showed Armstrong’s shadowy figure hopping tentatively down the ladder. It was one small step for man, he said. One giant leap for mankind. Later, in characteristic humility, he suggested that his actual words were “one small step for a man,” the voice-activated radio dropping the one letter word. Dad was moved to tears – he had helped design and build some of the hardware used on this and other flights. His handiwork, and that of thousands like him, had brought two unspeakably brave Americans safely to the Moon.


Neil Armstrong belonged to a larger existence, and to history, long before heart disease took him at eighty-two. He is a singular human being, a remarkable one of a kind. Calmly broadcasting his impressions from the Moon so many years ago, he made my father cry.
*James Lovell (Tom Hanks), Apollo 13, 1995

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