“I’m gonna go up there someday.” The young man crouched in his parents’ backyard, squinting into the eyepiece of a telescope. His mother followed his gaze, up to the bright globe hovering over their back yard. “To the Moon?” “Sure. It’s 1962, Ma -- they’re sending up rockets and such. And I’m a pilot -- who’d be better for flying that far than a pilot?” She shook her head, still looking toward the Moon, her mouth downturned. “As if your life wasn’t dangerous enough, you want to go out into space. Sometimes I don’t think we raised you with a lick of sense.” He grinned, and enveloped his mother in a hug. Neither was much of a talker, but they understood each other. “I’ll bring you back a Moon rock. Or cheese.” “Just bring me back yourself.” She turned away from the gray orb, back toward the comforts of her home and the things she knew and understood. How things had changed since her son was born: World Wars, Cold Wars, rockets into space, that crazy interstate highway idea. And her little boy flying around in jet fighters, fending off the Red Menace. “That’s gotta be the first step, Ma. You’ve seen the movies -- we’re destined to go out into space, someday, explore the stars. We’re headed up a ladder, and the Moon is the first rung.” “Well.” At the door she turned back, to see her son standing there in his uniform, still staring up. Maybe he’d be safer in a spacesuit, after all. “If you’re going to do all that, you need to keep your strength up. You get in here and eat your supper before it gets cold, Neil Armstrong.” Neil’s smile seemed to say that no matter what he accomplished, his mother would always be his mother.#
I wrote that for a writer’s group a few years ago, trying to capture what it must have been like for a young man about to push the edge of technology, to become a true pioneer. I don’t know if any moment like that ever happened (the real Armstrong was already married at that point), but if so, it would have happened just a couple of hours drive from where I grew up, and from where I marveled at his accomplishments as a kid.
1962 was the year I was born: the year Neil Armstrong’s daughter died of pneumonia, the year Armstrong was chosen as a pilot for a military space plane, and the year he sent in his application to be one of the “New Nine” NASA astronauts.
I was four years old when Armstrong went up on Gemini 8, six when he was almost killed while flying a lunar lander simulator. Two days after my seventh birthday Apollo 11 lifted off, and my earliest memory is staring at the grainy black and white TV footage as Neil Armstrong becoming the first human being to step foot on our Moon.
Like many kids of the time, I was all about space exploration. I had a full Apollo rocket assembly (a toy with a capsule that would pop off and fly into the air); a plastic lunar lander; models of, among other things, a Soviet Soyuz capsule and assorted other rockets and spaceships; and, of course, astronaut action figures. Vietnam, Nixonian politics, and the Cold War could have been in another universe for all I cared, but I inhaled any information I could get about space exploration.
Naturally I wanted to be an astronaut myself, but it turns out they have to be good with math.
I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate the impact the first Moon landing had on the world. 450 million radio listeners heard Neil Armstrong proclaim he’d just made a giant leap for mankind. 93% of American households with TVs tuned in to the mission, making it the most watched program ever at the time.
The President was waiting to greet them personally when they splashed down. (I remember my teacher dragging a portable TV into our classroom so we could watch a splashdown live, although I don’t recall if it was Apollo 11 or a different flight.) The astronauts rode in ticker tape parades, were on stamps and coins, and got a visit with the Queen of England.
So when I say Neil Armstrong was a Big Deal, understand that I’m not doing that over-exaggeration thing that’s become far too common with the most minor celebrities. And when I say Neil Armstrong was a hero, realize just how high the stakes were: In today’s risk-averse world, the whole thing never would have happened.
There was every reason to believe Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and maybe even command module pilot Michael Collins, would never see Earth again. It was a huge technological challenge, and the planners were rushed by the fact that it was also a race. (A Soviet probe malfunctioned and crashed on the Moon just after Armstrong and Aldrin finished the first Moon walk.) A speech had been prepared for President Nixon to give if the Apollo 11 crew ended up stranded.
When the astronauts got ready to leave, they discovered the switch that would arm the one and only main engine for liftoff had broken off. They used a felt-tip pen to replace it. Only the pen kept them from dying on the Moon.
So, yeah. I’m a bit gutted by his death, as my British friends would say. Neil Armstrong was my first real-life hero. I hadn’t had many heroes at all, to that point: Mr. Spock of Star Trek, maybe, and assorted characters from TV shows and comic books. But Armstrong was real. A flesh and blood daredevil, a man who grabbed death by the hood and kicked its butt.
He didn’t seek fame, didn’t get stupid with bling or childish behavior, didn’t lever his celebrity for personal gain. By all accounts he was brave and humble; a risk taker, but not obnoxious about it; a pioneer, but aware he was only human.
Neil Armstrong was more than a hero: He was the kind of man they just don’t seem to make anymore. Just as the universe became bigger and more accessible with him, the world seems a smaller, duller place without him. Rest in peace, Neil. Once more you go into unknown territory – may your engines always fire, and your compass always be true.