Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the surface of another celestial body, was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on August 5, 1930, and passed away on Aug. 25, 2012. Despite the fact of his lifelong reticence to put himself front and center (“Death & Legacy,” second sentence), the time between his birth and his death at age 82 was full, confident and engaged at every level of achievement, from military service to the U.S. space program.
What he said
According to Armstrong’s own recollection, he thought that his words on touching the lunar surface were “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” (“In the Shadow of The Moon,” 2008 Ron Howard Documentary on DVD) There is some question, due to a radio communications dropout for just an instant, whether the statement included “a man” or was simply “man,” but his words were transmitted from the Moon all around the inhabited world. They are immortalized in many recordings, just as NASA’s mission control center received them.
His life on Earth
Neil Armstrong’s upbringing took place under the tutelage of conservative Midwestern parents, and his career as an engineer, naval aviator, test pilot, and administrator may have cemented some of his careful nature. As his life began to resume whatever normalcy he could expect, long after the Apollo 11 crew’s return from the Moon, he began to act forcefully as a cheerleader for human spaceflight and further exploration. He was all too aware of what could happen if the enthusiasm of the public flagged after the victory over Russia of being first on the Moon.
What did he mean by those words? Given that he had come up with them on the same day he uttered them to the world, he probably intended that people catch a scientific fever from the second phrase, one that would drive further efforts to send astronauts into space. “One giant leap” had to mean, spoken as it was by a scientist and patriot, that people should put aside other concerns of lesser import and concentrate on the continuation of NASA’s mission to seek out and be a part of the future. As he testified in 2010, “If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that would be in our best interests,” he told Congress.
What is, what might be
The United States has spent most of the past 40 years putting men and women into low Earth orbit (200-300 miles above the ground). Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn have all advocated more funding and better research for deep-space missions involving human crews, without significant success. Now that Armstrong has died, his cause may have greater poignancy, but will it win out over other programs competing for funding? Evidently, the other astronauts of his class will be watching closely, with great hopes for the near future of discovery and exploration.