“One small step….”

It was a Sunday night in July 1969 when all the world that could get to a television set had one turned on, watching humankind set foot for the first time on another celestial object. The man who got that chance to be the first on Luna was Neil Armstrong, a sometime Navy pilot and civilian engineer. Yesterday, Neil began his last journey when he died at the age of 82.

I don’t remember that night that Armstrong made history with crystal clarity; at this point in time, those ghostly TV images from essentially another planet are a hazy batch of white figures prancing across the lunar landscape. But the thrill of that day, perhaps the proudest achievement in human aspiration and learning to this time, stays with me today. I can only hope that I was able to communicate it, along with my husband, to our children when the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 came back in 2009. Someone today on the radio said that there are a lot of children who, when asked who was the first man to walk on the Moon, would answer, “Lance Armstrong.” I find that both sad and frightening.

Armstrong might have found it frightening, in terms of what it said for the schooling of our children; but he wouldn’t regret the lack of notoriety. Neil was a man who never sought the limelight, and never traded on his place in history. He flat refused all requests for autographs, and preferred to be an engineer and a college professor; he retired from NASA in 1971, and made almost no public appearances after that, even on anniversaries of his flight. He always regarded his achievement as part of a group effort, and he said in an interview from space on July 23, as the astronauts neared Earth:

The responsibility for this flight lies first with history and with the giants of science who have preceded this effort; next with the American people, who have, through their will, indicated their desire; next with four administrations and their Congresses, for implementing that will; and then, with the agency and industry teams that built our spacecraft, the Saturn, the Columbia, the Eagle, and the little EMU, the spacesuit and backpack that was our small spacecraft out on the lunar surface. We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft; who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into those craft. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you, and to all the other people that are listening and watching tonight, God bless you. Good night from Apollo 11.

Knowing what we do of what went on as the Lunar Module neared the Moon’s surface, it’s my own speculation that we might have two dead bodies on Luna instead of footprints if it weren’t for Armstrong. The location Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin were approaching as they descended was a stretch strewn with boulders; it was entirely possible that they could hit one of these and flop over. (The primitive guidance computer — state of the art at the time — was overloaded with tasks, and had placed them well west of where they were supposed to come down. Neil, an extremely qualified pilot, took partial manual control of the flight and brought the Eagle down with just seconds of descent fuel left to them — not quite landing on fumes, but close enough to justify the famous line from Houston Mission Control, “…You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

Five hours later, Neil was walking on the surface of Luna. It was the most exciting thing I had ever seen happen in my then short life, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see anything like it again before I die. Neil Armstrong didn’t want the praise that his countrymen and the world offered him…but he was deserving of it. Blessings be upon him, and on his memory.

Posted August 26, 2012 by Harper Ganesvoort in Personal

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