Neil Armstrong, the US astronaut whose grainy image on television transfixed the world on 20 July, 1969 as he climbed down nine steps from the tiny lunar module and became the first human to set foot on the Moon, has died at the age of 82, of complications from heart surgery.
The Moon landing had been ordained by John F Kennedy in May 1961, just a month after the Soviet Union stunned the US by sending Yuri Gagarin safely into Earth orbit. Kennedy’s deadline was the end of the decade. The goal was met by the Apollo 11 mission, and Neil Armstrong – young, handsome, and, most important, American – entered his country’s pantheon of heroes. There was a dose of luck that Armstrong was involved in what was just his second foray into space. An accident or technical glitch might have upended the timetable. But it may have been more than coincidence that he was chosen to command the Apollo 11 crew that comprised himself, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who also walked on the Moon, and Michael Collins, who remained in the command module, in lunar orbit.
As a 13 year old I remember watching the moon landing in the middle of the night along with the rest of the transfixed world – 500 million people, a sixth of the world’s population at the time, watched those grainy images as Armstrong walked on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. It was an iconic and mould breaking moment where, for a short while, we could all believe in the future. We all travelled in the Eagle on Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on Sunday July 20th 1969 as the Lunar Module landed with less than 20 seconds fuel to spare.
The former Eagle Scout Neil Armstrong was a modest and grounded man attached to his home state of Ohio living not far from Dayton, the home town of Wilbur and Orville Wright. He never cashed in or wrote his memoirs and followed his first love to become a Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Maybe his modesty and shunning of the shallow cult of celebrity stemmed from Cincinnati, the first major American inland city where he taught and died. It was named in honour of General George Washington, who was considered a latter day Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who was called to serve Rome as dictator, an office which he resigned after completing his task of defeating the Aequians in no less than 16 days, and was considered the role model dictator. Like Cincinnatus, after his moment of triumph Armstrong returned to the plough.
The Apollo 11 Moon Landing was in Armstrong’s own words ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ It was an immense achievement which at once changed the mind-set of humanity which no longer confined itself to the Earth but also emphasised our individual and collective insignificance in the Cosmos. The Apollo 11 Crew were all brave men who must have privately thought they were on a one way trip.
Neil Alden Armstrong – Aeronautical Engineer, Test Pilot, Aviator, Astronaut
August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012