I was born on July 20, and always considered it to be a wonderful honor that on that day Neil Armstrong took that one small step on the moon. As I grow older, so do those immortal footprints. His recent passing caused me to pause and think about his impact upon my life. He died during a month of a “blue moon.” As he asked, I went outside and winked to that moon on August 31, remembering his achievement.
This contemplation about Armstrong led to a a discussion with a friend about heroes and history. In my mind Neil Armstrong is a hero but, my friend proposed, does the event make the man or does the man make the event?
The courage to act
Take Stephen St. Bernard, the New York City bus driver who caught a girl who fell three stories in July. The child’s fall placed St. Bernard in that moment. He was heroic because he did something extraordinary and unexpected. Martin Luther King Jr. created a movement, leading to events in history that made him famous. He is a hero for creating change.
Neil Armstrong was a product of military training, testing planes and then was asked if he wanted to travel into outer space. He was a man doing what he was trained to do. He is a symbol of our achievement regarding space travel. It was that goal that made Armstrong’s opportunity.
In our pursuit of space travel, it takes teams of hundreds of people to put forth a few. These people are the unnamed heroes. Yet Armstrong carried the dream each believed – that one day man would walk on the moon. Not only was he courageous for accomplishing feats many dreamed, but he was courageous because he brought to life a singular moment everyone envisioned. It takes courage to leave the comfort of home and grasp an opportunity of a lifetime, and it takes believers. It is from that point that the smallest hero walks, that point where one envisions change, collects the courage to act, and the event emerges, forever changing the future. That makes Armstrong a hero.
We were there
Neil Armstrong, after achieving his monumental moment in the history books, retired to a quiet life. He was not a man seeking the spotlight, but rather one who found the spotlight cast upon him. He was chosen to further our adventures in space. Our desire to reach the moon placed him on the lunar surface. He did what he needed to do and then returned to his life. His family said in an interview after his death that he would make all sorts of bad jokes about the moon and then would say, “Well, I guess you had to be there.”
In our hearts, we were there when he walked for all mankind, and I, for one, appreciate what he and everyone else accomplished in 1969. Space travel was accomplished with computers that had less memory than most cellular phones.
I can’t say whether or not my admiration for his accomplishment would be different if it had happened on another day, but I can say that the event has always been a foundation for my scientific interests, and in particular, my love of astronomy.
When the dogs and I take our late-night walks, I frequently stop and admire the stars, identify constellations and look for planets. The awe of how much we can see with the naked eye always overwhelms me, and I imagine how it must have felt to Neil to look out into space and see not constellations, but depth. I am jealous of the opportunity life offered him, and hope that others will be given that same opportunity some day as he and those who made it all happen.