On August 25, 2012, at the age of 82, Neil Armstrong died due to complications from heart-bypass surgery. Dreams and deeds of a whole nation brought him, and two other iconic astronauts, all the way to the moon and back. Armstrong was 38 at the time. On July 20, 1969, the dream started by President Kennedy came to fruition and gave humanity reasons to believe that there’s always hope of success. Yet, instead of giving you a rundown of his life, I would like to tackle this from a more personal level. Even though many of us aren’t old enough to have seen the event live on TV, we must understand its importance.
The Apollo program has a symbolic meaning that reaches far beyond the confines of America. In the middle of it all stood three astronauts and Wernher von Braun, the same man who worked a decade on the V2 rockets at the German Rocket Research Center in Peenemünde. Heinrich Himmler himself hurled von Braun into an SS prison in 1943, accusing him of being more interested in rocket research for the sake of space exploration than party loyalties. Then in 1945, he aided 5,000 employees and their families, including some of the secretive drawings and documents, to the Harz Mountain region, where they could be captured by Americans rather than Russians.
With von Braun designing the gargantuan three-stage Saturn V and the launch vehicle, NASA had everything required to jettison the Apollo spacecraft into trans-lunar injection, which is to say: on its way to the moon. 400,000 scientists, engineers, astronomers, and other employees worked on this feat with a budget of $24 billion.
Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon. Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer-Prize winning three-part series in LIFE magazine describes in some detail the life after the moon. What does a man do when he has been on the moon? I mean, no earthly feat can ever come close to topping the glory of standing on the moon and watching Earth set on the horizon. It’s the ultimate vision of human conquering, albeit not always a noble cause. Apollo is the most well-known and complex Olympian deity who stands, among other things, for truth and prophecy. (I’ve talked before about about the meaning of mythological names in the space age.)
To me, the naming of the Apollo program is also a statement on the human condition at the midpoint of the last century. It was the time of the Cold War, Vietnam War, and much other turbulence in world affairs. On one hand, it was America’s attempt to win the space race against Russia, but on the other hand, it was a testament to the greatness of western civilization. In both ways, the Apollo 11 mission was an act of inspiration, rather than one to gain political and economic advantage.
Apollo 11 was Neil Armstrong’s last spaceflight. Upon return, he was assigned the position of NASA’s deputy associate administrator for aeronautics the following year. He became a very private man, even refusing to be part of the 25th anniversary of the moon landing. Public appearances became a rare sight. “He’s a recluse’s recluse,” said Dave Garrett, a former NASA spokesman. When he grew tired of the desk job, he returned to his hometown in Ohio to work as a professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati and bought a farm near Lebanon, Ohio.
Apart from the mythical analogy, Neil Armstrong’s steps on the moon represent a trail of hope in the grim 20th century. That’s what matters so much: the investment into even greater achievements of science. Everything is connected; one little advancement in space technology could also inspire or motivate advancements in medicine. In no way, however, is space exploration some kind of escapism. No one is trying to leave Earth behind and establish a new home somewhere out here. Perhaps we’ll discover we’re not alone after all, and that we came from some superior being. The simple fact remains that Neil Armstrong’s proclamation that it was a giant leap for mankind has had huge implications in the world. It was a moment when all of humanity united in celebration. Frankly, the world needs more of these momentous events that bring people together, regardless of their background.
After news of Mr. Armstrong’s death was reported, President Obama said in a White House statement, “Neil was among the greatest of American heroes.”
“And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time,” the president added, “he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”
“He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits,” his family said in the statement. This is perhaps the one most important lesson we can learn from Neil Armstrong. He would probably tell a small boy dreaming of reaching the starts like him that he should always hold onto that dream, and defend it with hard work, until it comes true.
Have you been inspired by Neil Armstrong’s work? How did you react to his passing? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments.