One small step: Remembering Neil Armstrong

These cartoons from Robert Ariail and Bill Day remind me that I neglected to post about our loss of Neil Armstrong over the weekend.

In part, that was because I knew so little about him. Other astronauts — some of them, anyway — had such large personas by comparison. John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, Pete Conrad, for instance. What we didn’t know about those guys before was added and amplified by The Right Stuff. Yet Wolfe only had one vivid anecdote in his book that I recall about Armstrong — and it was about what a neutral, bland, machine-like personality he had:

The subtext of that anecdote, of course, was that Armstrong was no Chuck Yeager.

“… scarcely a line or a feature in his face that you could remember” seemed to describe this hero of the space race. I always sort of assumed he was chosen for his very anonymity, making him an American Everyman. It bugged me a bit at the time that after military pilots had paved the way into space up to that point, a civilian got to take the big First Step — it hardly seemed fair. But even in that, he was generic — he saved NASA from having to pick between Navy, Air Force and Marines for the big honor.

Then there was his name, evoking Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.

But finally, the fact that he was so anonymous, that (officially) anyway he was just chosen because he was the guy in line who had built up the requisite experience, emphasized the great thing about NASA — to a communitarian, anyway. It was always about the team (if you doubt it, go watch “Apollo 13” again), from the glory boys atop the rockets to the geeks in Mission Control to the lowliest worker on an assembly line making the humblest part of the capsule. Stretched just a bit, the team included all Americans (at the very least, we paid for the trip), and ultimately all humanity.

He was the first, but the rest of us took that step with him.

21 thoughts on “One small step: Remembering Neil Armstrong

  1. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    I was nine that summer, and it really made no impact on me. My dog died. That was rough, but I guess I never understood why it was such a big deal, not understanding the Cold War yet. I still don’t really get it. Seems like a lot of money and lives for a stunt.

  2. Doug Ross

    “Stretched just a bit, the team included all Americans (at the very least, we paid for the trip), and ultimately all humanity.”

    Neil – you didn’t walk on the moon, someone else did.

    Can’t we just accept that there are some exceptional people out there?

  3. Steven Davis II

    Like I said in another article, half-staff flags are okay for the likes of career politicians like Ted Kennedy who are in it for personal reasons, but not of a true American hero who would likely prefer his name not have household recognition.

  4. Steven Davis II

    Doug – I’m confused, are you saying that Neil Armstrong was never on the moon? If so, where was he… in Hollywood?

  5. Brad

    Doug, Doug, Doug… you’re ignoring what I say…

    Count me as one of the “Great Men” students of history. I see it as consisting of extraordinary individuals doing extraordinary things.

    But what was remarkable about this particular achievement was how impossible it was for a single individual, or small group of individuals, to make it happen. The space program was a wonderful amalgam of individual achievement and vast teamwork without which the individual achievements would have been impossible.

    This was true to an extent even in the early ratshack days at Muroc, when Yeager broke the sound barrier. They had to be part of a wealthy, technologically advanced society that could put up the money and knowhow to produce the X-1.

    By the time NASA came along, it was truly a case of a few extraordinary individuals (although, as Yeager could have told you, not necessarily the best of the best pilots) being lifted on the shoulders of multitudes. Again, I cite “Apollo 13” as a wonderful evocation of that. The courage of the crew is exemplary, but the heroes who save them are on the ground wearing pocket protectors.

    The pioneers of this period were vastly different in this respect from Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett or such of earlier times. To cross the Cumberland Gap, Boone just had to have the grit to try and the requisite survival skills, and decide to do it.

    Even Columbus, who couldn’t have launched his expedition without backing from the crown, gets credit for being the guy who talked the crown into it.

    The astronauts were superbly qualified men (really, sort of overqualified for the earlier missions), but they did not make the space program happen. They just raised their hands and volunteered when the opportunity was offered by those acting on behalf of the larger society that had decided this would be a national priority. To guys who had regularly been hanging their hides out on the line regularly as test pilots (flying aircraft that was far more demanding of their skills) already, the big risk was to their careers. Would it be a career dead-end? they worried. As it turned out, for the Mercury seven at least, to be the biggest, wildest boost to career possible. But that’s who these guys were — not entrepreneurs building a rocket in their garages, but career military officers (before Armstrong) who had to take a calculated risk to volunteer for “innovative duty.”

    And I honor them for that — for the starring roles they played in the grand communitarian epic that was our race to the moon…

  6. Brad

    One of the inspiring things about the early astronauts, a thing Doug will appreciate, is how they insisted on being pilots, resisting the scientists’ and engineers’ efforts to keep their roles those of lab rats. They were PILOTS, and wanted to function as pilots, and they gained measures of control over their craft that came in handy in a tight spot more than once.

  7. Brad

    Kathryn notes that her dog died about this time, and that the landing impressed her but little.

    It was a time of great import for me. My grandmother died the morning after Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon. I was deeply impressed by both events. Mankind steps beyond this planet (and how anyone can consider that trivial, or a mere “stunt” is way, way beyond me) for the first time in all the eons of existence… and then hours later I see my grandmother taken away in an ambulance, never to return. It was one of the most extraordinary days of my life.

  8. Brad

    Down on the more trivial level, that of mere gestures…

    Steven attaches political import to the lowering of flags. Is that right? Were no flags lowered for Armstrong? It seems unlikely somehow…

    Lately, I’ve been noticing flags at half-staff a LOT. Several times recently, I’ve wanted to ask why, but held back to avoid deeply embarrassing myself. (You know, “Who died?” and then they tell you, and you’re like, “Duh.”)

    Since I’m always seeing flags lowered for no person I can identify, I’d be surprised if none were lowered for Armstrong. I mean, that was certainly Robert Ariail’s first thought…

  9. Mark Stewart

    Raise the flag and leave it up.

    Did they lower the flag to half mast at Iwo Jima?

    More politicians need to find the will to say no. This is but a small instance. And yet, when the American flag is lowered to half mast at least monthly – something is seriously wrong.

  10. Doug Ross

    I’m sort of in Kathryn’s corner on this. The actual feat of putting a man on the moon was an engineering accomplishment of the highest order… but I’m not quite sure whether the end result made a whole lot of difference here on Earth. Imagine if we’d harnessed all that brain power to tackle a challenge like energy independence instead.

    I also don’t get very excited about putting a little robo-car on Mars. But that’s just me.

  11. Mark Stewart

    But I’d give the recognition to Armstrong. He did plant the flag on the moon.

    Most have been so cool standing at the bottom of the ladder… could he see earth at that moment? I always wondered…

  12. Brad

    Here’s what I wonder about that experience…

    Did it feel… REAL… when it was happening? I say that because so many factors would have conspired to make it feel artificial. First, there’s the fact of being sealed in that suit, shutting you off from all direct sensory interaction, especially tactile. I mean, being in Hawaii is a pretty awesome sensory experience, as I recall (Burl, help me out). But part of it is FEELING the tradewinds on your skin, and the warmth of the sun unsullied by the humidity we suffer with here. Things like that tell you you are THERE, and it’s really happening. Like the rain we experienced every day we were in England last year…

    Then… there’s the training, and all the conditioning he would have gone through ahead of time, to pre-experience the experience. That might tend to make a guy think, yep, just like the simulation. (In my own experience, of course, I have nothing to compare to this. But this makes me think of when I went to see Bob Dylan and the Band together in Memphis in 1974. And I’m telling myself, Dude, you are right here with DYLAN and the BAND. But I couldn’t get over the fact that he looked EXACTLY like all the pictures I’d seen. He was dressed the same. He had the guitar, and the harmonica in its rack around his neck. He even had the blue spotlight on him so that he looked exactly like the photo on the “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” cover. I couldn’t get over the impression that I was listening to an album and looking at pictures. It FELT just the same.)

    Then… there’s the fact that you are the first human walking in an actual ALIEN, extraterrestrial environment, which means there are things about it for which nothing in your life, and nothing in the experience of your (or any other) species, could possibly prepare you, and there’s nothing against which you can check the experience and say, yep, this is how this sort of thing feels.

    What I’m trying to say is, apart from maybe the one-sixth gravity (which can be faked by training underwater, although probably not perfectly), what would have felt truly different and unique about the experience? All those conspiracy theorists say it was done on a set in a TV studio. Well, in what way would it truly have felt different from that for Armstrong?

    I have no idea.

  13. Joanne

    Remember it as if it were yesterday. It was unbelievable watching that scene on a 12″ black and white (not that the moon is very colorful) Philco. I also remember the nay-sayers crying out that it was all “filmed in the desert!”

    I remember my mother saying the weather was so changeable every time we sent up a mission…Hmmm..

    But my dad was transported. He taught aeronautics to James McDivitt who flew in Apollo and Gemini.

    And I remember wanting to marry Neil Armstrong. He was the hero of the year in my book.

    You’ve earned your peace, sir.

  14. Ralph Hightower

    It was a pretty incredible time. I worked with some guys who weren’t around at the time. They just knew that we landed on the Moon from history books.

  15. Bryan Caskey

    Armstrong’s a hero. You know, I would be all for an Astronaut Memorial on the mall. You go into space in the name of America, you have done something. When an Astronaut dies we carve his name, DOB and DOD, and his or her mission on the stone. I think they are worth it.

  16. Steve Gordy

    I remember that night well (probably a sign of age) thinking that I would never see such a moment again. Unless we go to Mars within my lifetime, I never will. There has to be a light side, though: at the banquet in LA to honor the Apollo XI crew, an invitation was sent to Howard Hughes. He didn’t show.

  17. Doug Ross

    “Then… there’s the fact that you are the first human walking in an actual ALIEN, extraterrestrial environment, which means there are things about it for which nothing in your life, and nothing in the experience of your (or any other) species, could possibly prepare you, and there’s nothing against which you can check the experience and say, yep, this is how this sort of thing feels.”

    Reminds me of how I felt when I first attended a NASCAR race.

  18. Brad

    Good one, Doug. I expect that’s the way I’d feel at a NASCAR race, too. Were I ever to experience one, which seems unlikely at this point, but you never know.

    Actually, I sort of had that experience WITHOUT attending the race. When I came here to attend USC in the fall of 1971, having just graduated from high school in Hawaii, there were a lot of things I had to adjust to — the humidity, for instance. First time I tried to walk outside after getting here, I thought I was having a stroke or something.

    But one of the most alienating moments I recall was the first day everybody was together in the dorm, and all the friends from the previous year were getting reacquainted. My roommate John from Cheraw was a junior, and knew everybody. This was the first day after the big race in Darlington (back when they had it there), and all these guys crowded into our room to talk about it in great detail and with tremendous enthusiasm.

    I was just barely aware of NASCAR at that point, and had never taken any interest in it. I sat there listening and thinking, “What on Earth are they going on about? What have I gotten myself into?” My parents had wanted me to go to the University of Hawaii, where I could have gone with in-state rates, but noooo, I had to go 5,000 miles off.

    I should quickly add that John and I got to be good friends, and learned from each other. I learned more about my home state. He claims today that it was my constant playing of their albums that made him into a Beatles uber-fan, but I don’t know about that…

  19. Brad

    Speaking of the interaction of cultures, one of my favorite little moments from that semester was one day when I was sitting on the bed reading in my room with the door open, and a guy from down the hall stuck his head in. He was from Manchester, England. He asked why I had the Union Jack on my wall. I guess he thought he’d stumbled across a fellow Brit.

    “That’s the Hawaiian flag,” I explained.

    “Oh. Yes. Captain Cook. Sandwich Islands, all that. I see.” And he wandered off…


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