Neil Armstrong August 5th 1930 to August 25th 2012
We all have personal heroes; people who inspire us through their deeds, manners and relationships with others. I have a few. Some are local people I know; others are family members both past and present. Then there are famous people. For me there were Scott and Oates; Shackleton; Hillary and Norgay. You can see I’m from an expedition background!
However, another set of my heroes were members of the Apollo missions in the late 60’s and early 70’s; and the astronauts of the later shuttle missions. Although I am a geographer, I suspect that if I were able to rerun my life, and I had been better at maths and physics in school, astrophysics and astronomy could have become real passions and a career option.
Space exploration like terrestrial exploration has always fascinated me and so it was with great sadness that I like everyone else heard of the death this week of Neil Armstrong.
There will be many extraordinary testaments to this man in the next week or so. I cannot do him justice but here are a few reasons why this man was a personal hero.
I was one of the 600 million who saw him land on the moon and take those steps down to the lunar surface. I was seven. The whole of my primary school had been assembled in the hall. My class were late in. As a seven year old I wasn’t really tuned into the events that were unfolding but I was astute enough to know that all the school assembled outside of normal assembly time was something special; as was the one black and white TV mounted on a stand on the stage. Being at the back I knew I had to get to the front to make sense of the flickering images. I wriggled snake like on my stomach through the maze of students to end up in the front row and I was captivated. They say catch a child early and they can develop passions from those first encounters. I was mesmerised. Since then I’ve been a space geek! Funny the childhood memories we carry.
There can be no one who can deny that Neil Armstrong was an exceptionally courageous man. Acknowledged by Buzz Aldrin, another brave soul, as ‘the best pilot I know’. Neil survived 78 combat missions in Korea and managed to land the lunar module with only 10 seconds worth of fuel remaining. Such courage is to be respected and saluted.
The leader in today’s ‘Times’ was entitled ‘The Right Stuff’ and went on to note how Armstrong’s ‘personal modesty contrasted with the immensity of his achievement. He exemplified courage and the human quest for understanding’.
As one of three astronauts, Armstrong set off with only a 50-50 chance of success; the lunar module actually used less computing power than my cheap smart phone. He was part of an era of human achievement and endeavour which has yet to be equalled. I still marvel at the fact that Armstrong was the first man to step onto another body within space other than our own planet.
I admired his innate modesty and reticence. His loathing of the spotlight and the trappings of fame was something I admired. He became an educator, teaching engineering in Cincinnati (American friends I hope I spelt that right). It is clear he was loved by family, friends, colleagues and students. He was the only civilian in the Apollo 11 team and described as modest, diligent, highly intelligent and not given to excesses. He did not rush to an opinion before having spent much thought on the issue.
I have followed his career over the years; I’ve read the accounts of his landing of the module and the coolness he exhibited under pressure; his accomplishments on the Gemini programme. He was an extraordinary man.
I believe that we have lost something with the move away from developing our exploration in space. The Curiosity project on Mars is truly awe inspiring but NASA not pursuing manned space flight is a great sadness. I know we have so many problems on our planet to put right but somehow I think we need to continue the amazing achievements of this man and his Apollo programme contemporaries. The greatest tribute and memorial we could pay him and his colleagues is to go back to the moon; to use it as a ‘stepping stone (in the words of our space scientist Colin Pillinger) to the rest of the solar system’.
The legacies of that first moonwalk have been immense…satellite TV, GPS tracking systems, the ‘look-back-in-wonder pictures of Planet Earth which spawned the modern environmental movement of which my own daughter is becoming a part.
I was deeply moved by the words of Neil Armstrong’s family this week and I finish this blog post with those words. Perhaps tomorrow I might briefly share the astonishing story of Neil’s piloting of the lunar module on that day in 1969. If you don't know the actual details, its well worth a read!
“For those who may ask what can they do to honour Neil, we have a simple request: Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and 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”