On Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012, Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the surface of the moon, died. He now begins his journey into the greatest unknown.
It is hard to explain what a transformative event the lunar landing was to people who were not there. The closest thing I can compare it to is the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus.
Columbus sailed out of sight of land into a vast, trackless, unknown. He and his crew risked falling off the world or being stuck unable to sail uphill to get back. But they did it and discovered something utterly unknown to the rest of the world. As a NASA official put it, "As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them."
I was just a little puppy in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. The truth is that I have seen the footage of that transformative event so many times, I can't tell what I really remember and what I have seen so many times sense. I do remember for certain sitting in front of the T.V. with my mother watching it and mom telling me to watch carefully and remember it because "this is really important."
Before I was born, President Kennedy challenged us to go to the Moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard.
Imagine the difficulties. For all practical purposes, the first rockets were the German V-2's used during World War II. We had to create a capsule that men could survive in while exposed to solar radiation, cosmic rays, micro meteorites, and the vacuum of space.
We had to get that capsule off the Earth, onto the Moon, and back again. The more fuel you put on board, the heavier the rocket, requiring still more fuel to lift off and escape the gravity of the Earth.
Not only that, how do you do even the simplest things in zero gravity. How do you eat? How do you go to the bathroom? Neil Armstrong literally put his life in the hands of the scientists and God when he accepted the Apollo 11 mission.
The "Space Race" was moving at full speed when I was born in 1966. In 1969 and 1970, everyone had "Apollo fever." Every child studied the Moon with binoculars hoping to see the space ship. Grownups like my father used the Apollo rocket image for the cover of his corporate report projecting product development into the early 1970s.
If you have watched the movie Apollo 13, you know that NASA monitors everything about their astronauts. As the lunar module was landing, Neil Armstrong had to take control from the "computers" and land it himself. Armstrong's pulse was measured at 150 beats per minute as he guided the lunar lander to the moon's surface. Neil Armstrong later remarked, "I believe every human has a finite number of heartbeats, I don't intend to waste any of mine." By all accounts, he didn't.
As Neil Armstrong was descending the ladder on the lunar lander to the surface of the Moon, he spoke his most famous words into his helmet microphone; "That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind." The words are quintessentially simple and perfect for the occasion. But he made a mistake. The words he wrote and tried to memorize were; "One small step for a man. . . ." What a perfect error.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left several mementos on the moon. Most famously, they left a flag pole flying an American Flag. The second most famous item left was a plaque, which read "We came in peace for all mankind." But Buzz Aldrin reported what he called a "tender moment." During the first Moon walk, Neil Armstrong set down a patch to commemorate NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who died in the course of their duties.
For a while, Neil Armstrong was the most famous person on Earth. He was more famous than Elvis and even Mohamed Ali. The fact that he receded into the background is a true testament to his humility and character. Armstrong took a low profile, becoming what his family called a "reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job."
As I reflect upon the passing of this hero, I can't help but have a tear drop clinging to my cheek. As I mentally scan the horizons, I don't see any one to take his place. An era has ended and no one knows when someone else will walk in Neil Armstrong's footprints.