I grew up reading stories and watching documentaries about the early manned space program. Not having been around during the times of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned space programs, I have only been able to experience the space fever through books and documentaries. Instead, I am a child of the space shuttle generation. I can vividly remember the first launch of the Columbia with John Young and Robert Crippen ushering in a new age of space flight. However, my passion of the space program has always been in the “Golden Age” of space flight. The time where humans barely reached the boundaries of space, and within a decade, punched through to reach the moon. Filled with names such as Glenn, Shepard, Grissom, Lovell, and Armstrong, this age of flight was full of adventure, boldness, and sometimes tragedy. These astronauts were brave and dedicated to the overall mission of eventually landing on the moon. While many of my friends often talked of their sports heroes or celebrities, as I did to a lesser extent, but for me these guys were the ones I admired and felt proud of.
Neil Armstrong lived a life full of adventure and experiences that I can only imagine. August 25, 2012 is the end of his book of life, and the first human to have set foot on a world other than the earth. Neil’s journey has taken him from us to continue in to the mystery of the unknown. His contributions helps transition many concepts that were thought of in early science fiction novels to simply science. At the start of the 20th century, the concept of landing on the moon was utterly fantastic in nature and just as much science fiction as the concept of faster than light travel as in Star Wars or Star Trek movies. His devotion to his job, the goals of NASA, and the work towards education and science makes Neil someone very special.
Neil was kind of a hero to me growing up. I watched documentaries, and have read countless books about the history of NASA. I may not have met the man, or knew him in any way, but I admire his dedication to the overall mission, and especially appreciated his humble approach to his life and accomplishments. Many astronauts have stated they knew him to an extent, but did not really know the man. Neil was unassuming and very private. He could have capitalized on his popularity and in a sense “cashed in” on his accomplishments and fame. After leaving NASA, he decided to teach at the University of Cincinnati instead. His work in the sciences in the later part of his life was an example of his desire to see younger generations take lead and move humanity into the future.
Everyone is aware of Neil commanding the mission that first walked on the moon, and rightfully so. I always think of two examples of why I admire the man as much as I do. The first took place during the Gemini 8 flight. This flight was to have the spacecraft rendezvous with an unmanned target vehicle already in orbit. The flight went well, and after a period of time Armstrong and fellow astronaut David Scott reached their target. As the spacecraft successfully docked with the target, they experienced a series of rolls. Armstrong fought to control the roll, but was not able to stabilize their spacecraft. In an effort to regain control, they undocked which caused the rate of roll to increase up to one revolution per second. Armstrong had to switch to another system, which when activated, mission rules required re-entry at the earliest available opportunity. While the mission was not successful, damaged wiring was later found to have caused a thruster to remain on during maneuvers. Throughout this entire episode, the astronauts were calm and worked the problem through and came back safely.
The second event occurred while in training for the Apollo 11 flight, Armstrong was practicing lunar landing via a test vehicle designed to replicate lunar landing techniques. It was an ungainly looking vehicle that looked like anything resembling a helicopter of aircraft of any sort. While in testing, the controls began to degrade, causing the aircraft to bank to a point where control was lost. Armstrong had to eject and parachute to safety. Analysis of the crash revealed had he waited half a second longer, his parachute would have not had time to open, resulting in serious injury or death. For most normal people, an event such as this requires time off from work, or at the minimum, the rest of the day off to recover and contemplate the nature of things. Not Armstrong, instead he went back to the office and continued to work. When asked by others, he acted like it was no big deal and shrugged it off. This was typical Armstrong. If things were going bad or in pressure situations, he could remain calm and continue to work on the mission at hand.
I never had a chance to meet Neil Armstrong, and would have loved to at least shake his hand and thank him for his service in not only to the country, but for humanity as a whole. Maybe he was not the best astronaut, and he was not selected to be the first man to walk on the moon from the start. His mission turned out to be the one that was destined to make the first landing. Had any of the previous missions had failures, Pete Conrad (commander of Apollo 12) could have been the first man. However, things are the way they are, and perhaps the perfect individual was the first to set foot on ground other than the earth. The significance of this act will be known as long as there is human civilization. Far into the future, people may look back at the 20th century and may see wars, conquering of the atom, or political friction, but one the single most significant event will probably be the moon landings. With a single footstep, everything changed.
Neil was a hero of mine as a child and I still get chills down my spine whenever I watch footage of the Saturn V blasting off. It is always sad to see someone you admire die, but he lived a good life. The world will be a little emptier with his loss, but his was a life that should be celebrated. He lived a good long life, achieved goals that most people cannot comprehend. So long Neil and thanks for your service for all of us humans still here on the good earth. Your small step will be remembered for a long time and was indeed a giant step for mankind.