As the years go by, and we all get older, it’s inevitable that the heroes many of us grew up with will pass on. Those of us who work within the space community have seen that fact hit close to home too many times during the past few weeks as we’ve been forced to say good bye to former Kennedy Space Center director Forrest McCartney and astronauts such as Janice Voss, Alan Poindexter and Sally Ride.
And now we live in an era in which the first human to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, no longer walks among us.
Neil passed away on Saturday at the age of 82 as a result of complications from heart surgery he underwent almost three weeks ago.
Many years ago, when discussing the fact there was no formal physical training program for the Apollo astronauts, Neil famously said something to the effect of “I believe that every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don’t intend to waste any of mine running around doing exercises.”
Well, Neil Armstrong didn’t waste any of his heartbeats, that’s for sure.
Born and raised in rural Ohio, he was a naval aviator and then a civilian test pilot for NASA’s predecessor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. He flew the X-15 rocket plane before becoming a NASA astronaut.
He demonstrated his calm and cool demeanor in the cockpit as commander of the Gemini 8 mission, which featured the first-ever docking of two spacecraft in orbit, and soon after the first-ever emergency undocking in space thanks to a stuck-open thruster that caused the Gemini capsule to spin so wildly that Neil and his co-pilot Dave Scott nearly perished.
But Neil took charge, used a second set of maneuvering jets to stop the unwanted motion, and brought the Gemini ship home to a safe splashdown in the ocean.
Later, just a few weeks before his Apollo 11 mission, Neil was training for the lunar landing in Houston with a strange-looking, jet-propelled contraption nicknamed the flying bedstead. It malfunctioned and crashed in a terrible explosion. A split second earlier, Neil, keeping calm, recognized the impending disaster, ejected and, figuring that the remaining training exercises for the day were cancelled, he walked back to his office to catch up on some work, as though nothing had happened.
And then of course came July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong piloted the Lunar Module Eagle to a landing at the Sea of Tranquility, safely touching down with minimal fuel left, despite an overloaded computer and having to manually fly past a boulder-strewn area at the last minute.
After all that, taking a two-hour stroll on the Moon might seem almost anti-climactic, yet it was the historic moment of an age, witnessed by an estimated 600 million people on their televisions, as Neil climbed down the ladder and stepped on the surface.
For those of us who are fortunate to be old enough to remember that day in history, the Moonwalk was one of those defining moments in which we will never forget where we were.
I was at my childhood home in Minnesota. It was a Sunday. My cousin Kurt and his family were at the house and in preparation for the landing, Kurt and I set up my Major Matt Mason toys on the floor with the big Moon Station serving as a simulated Lunar Module, and the hub of activity for Matt Mason and his space suited buddies Sergeant Storm, Dick Davis and Jeff Long.
We also prepared my models of the Command Service Module and Lunar Module, so we could demonstrate to the adults what was happening at the Moon as Eagle pulled away from Columbia to begin its descent to the surface.
I very clearly remember my quandary in trying to determine exactly when the Lunar Module touched down based on what I was hearing and seeing on television, so I wouldn’t set my Eagle down on the floor until the real thing happened – a lesson that sticks with me every time I’m on the radio describing a launch. Never say liftoff until you see the rocket lift off.
After the landing the relatives went home, I took a brief nap, and then I was plopped on the floor in front of the color TV, wearing my red pajama bottoms and a white t-shirt as Bubble Up pop was poured down my throat to help keep me awake.
When Neil stepped onto the surface, my dad took a picture of me watching the TV. Years later, in 1985, when I was a student at Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach, I travelled to Tallahassee to speak to the National Commission on Space and met Neil Armstrong for the first time. After the session, alone in the hallway, I remember talking to him more about aviation and the X-15 than I did his adventures as an astronaut. I think he liked that and we wound up spending some great quality time together.
He was even more intrigued when I showed him that slide my dad took, and asked him to sign the border. He did so with a smile and told me that was probably the most unusual thing he was ever asked to autograph. Of course, this was years before e-bay and his decision to stop signing things. That slide is the most treasured of my space mementos.
I was fortunate to be able to work with Neil a number of times after that through a variety of connections in the years that followed, and I experienced his personality first-hand.
Yes he was private, and a reluctant hero, and shunned any notion of capitalizing on his place in history – believing truly and sincerely that he didn’t deserve any of the attention; that his steps on the Moon were the result of the hard work of some 400,000 people who were the true heroes of the space program.
But in being private and keeping to himself, that didn’t mean he was cold, or aloof, or snobbish. He was approachable, gracious and always displayed the gentle kind manners of a person who grew up in a rural Midwest setting.
With Neil’s passing on Saturday, the official statements and comments came fast and furious.
President Obama said, “Neil’s spirit of discovery lives on in all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploring the unknown – including those who are ensuring that we reach higher and go further in space. That legacy will endure – sparked by a man who taught us the enormous power of one small step.”
Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins said, “He was the best, and I will miss him terribly,” simple words that prove once again why Mike is one my favorite astronauts of all time.
Perhaps you’ve already read of it, but the best comment of the day, and the one that truly wraps up in one nice package all you need to know about Neil Armstrong, and how you and I both should respond to the news of his passing, came from his family’s official statement, released through NASA, and which concluded by saying:
“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, 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.”