The unassuming Neil Armstrong, the first of 12 Americans who walked on the moon, was a humble man. Although 11 of his countrymen were equally heroic in what they accomplished — and it was worth remembering their names because what they did was amazing [Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan, and Harrison Schmitt] — Armstrong stood out.
Despite his remarkable feat, he kept a low profile after his achievement, asking that his participation in conferences or attendance at official functions not be announced in advance. Inevitably, when he was introduced, most attendees gave him standing ovations, not the kind that is routinely bestowed on cheap politicians but the genuine type that demonstrates pride among ordinary people who crave heroism and respect authentic performances.
Armstrong commanded the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, though any other candidate may have been technically chosen for the task. In the highly competitive astronaut corps that Nasa assembled in the 1960s, there were men such as Virgil Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chafee ‑ all three of whom died aboard Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967 after their cabin burned during a launch pad test ‑ who were immensely gifted too. Like several of his colleagues, Armstrong was a veteran US Navy pilot who flew the experimental rocket-powered X-15 aircraft, and participated in the Gemini programme that preceded Apollo as the United States fulfilled the 1961 pledge made by President John F. Kennedy “to achieving the goal … of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
Along with David R. Scott, Armstrong flew on March 16, 1966 aboard the Gemini 8 mission, which successfully conducted the first docking of two spacecrafts in orbit. Still, the mission was aborted within a day when Nasadetermined that the lives of the astronauts were threatened after the capsule suffered the first critical in-space system failure of a US spacecraft. This was not the last time when Armstrong faced a catastrophic mishap. On May 6, 1968, the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) he was training on exploded while he was rehearsing at Ellington Air Force Base. His calm reaction that day probably sealed the choice to pick him for the Apollo 11 mission.
In the event, he landed on the moon and beamed back his now famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” that, even if rehearsed, will forever be etched in the annals of humanity.
There are those who are now arguing that the space programme was “one giant leap into the dark,” which was facile commentary, perhaps even silly, because few follow-up programmes materialised. Granted that politics played a big part in the space programme ‑ especially American–Soviet rivalry ‑ though other considerations, including exorbitant costs, were equally important. Still, developing new technologies ‑ from powerful miniaturised computers to the Teflon and, of course, ready-made meals ‑ were also high on the agenda. Fulfilling the quest for adventure was critical too, as men with vision explored uncharted territories, desiring to go where no one has gone before. If no follow-up missions were funded, something that Armstrong bemoaned in the past few years after Nasascaled back its human exploration of Mars, it was because few leaders displayed the Kennedy vision. Even fewer understood how to lit the imagination of youngsters many of whom were adrift in the violent consumer societies we created over the space of less than five decades.
History will recall the Apollo missions for what they were ‑ the initial steps to send humans to the moon ‑ and chances are excellent that they will not be the last such efforts. The statement released by Armstrong’s family upon his death requested that the public honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, adding “and the 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.” Nostalgia aside, few men in human history will ever rival Armstrong, and 100 years from now, when the World looks back at the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, a small number will be remembered for their true greatnesses.
Armstrong was among the handful who changed our lives for the better, which must include the likes of Thomas Edison (the inventor of the light bulb, as well as both the phonograph and the motion picture camera), Jonas Salk (the virologist who conceived the vaccine against polio), Louis Pasteur (the microbiologist who discovered the germ theory of diseases and created the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax), Alexander Fleming (the pharmacologist who discovered penicillin), Henri Coanda, (the Romanian inventor of the jet plane), and Steve Jobs (who revolutionised the personal computer and the portable phone). Edison, Salk, Pasteur, Fleming, Coanda, Jobs, and many others were ordinary men who did extraordinary things. In the same league, Armstrong fired our imaginations, and satisfied our need for exploration.
There is much in contemporary history to regret. Massacres and genocides, wars, humiliations galore, organised crime, and countless other inhuman activities, that bloat the arrogance of the powerful. On the other hand, there is also true greatness that must be recognised, honoured and emulated.
Dr. Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia.